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Political fictions
Or, how novelist Stephen Elliott tried every method possible to translate the double-talking, bootlicking, unctuous world of the campaign trail into something everyone can understand

I confess to Kucinich I drink too much coffee and Iíve been eating a hamburger a day for the last week. He shakes his head, because he knows writers, and writers always push their emotions too far and their diets reflect that. He explains how he used to drink six cans of Pepsi a day, and how he originally became a vegan to impress a girl.

"Thatís what I do!" I say, overjoyed. "I do things to impress girls too!"... When itís over I am in an entirely different place and Dennis is splitting his apple pie with me. We are friends. "Youíre more in touch with your humanity than the other journalists," he says. But he has no idea how in touch I am in that moment.

Originally published as part of a January Village Voice essay, this recollection occurs about 50 pages into Stephen Elliottís recently released Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process (Picador USA), which documents a year the novelist spent on the campaign trail with the presidential candidates. Taking place last December over a vegan meal in a van somewhere in Iowa, itís an absurd moment, recounted in Elliottís familiar, funny, first-person style, one that makes the quixotic Congressman Kucinich seem human. And indeed, Elliot says he and the candidate forged a "deep connection," both personally and politically. Typically, thatís not the norm for political coverage, which can be, says Elliott, "kind of dry."

During the year Elliott spent "on the trail" ó a phrase the 32-year-old author uses in the same way activists say "in the streets" and musicians say "on the road" ó he witnessed Chuck Berry fall off a table at a Dick Gephardt fundraiser, got within 15 feet of George W. Bush in the Midwest, and listened to John Kerry play guitar on his campaign bus. But Elliott is the first to admit that what he has published is not journalism, strictly speaking. "Itís really a memoir or a travelogue," he says. "Iím not a journalist. Iím just this guy. I could be anybody. [In the book] I have no idea what Iím supposed to do, you know, or how Iím supposed to write this book." And thatís why the peripatetic writer calls Looking Forward to It "one voterís story."

But Elliott isnít exactly your average voter. A few years ago, he was selected for Stanford Universityís Stegner Fellowship, an elite two-year program that each year pays five new writers to refine their craft and boasts alumni such as Raymond Carver, Robert Pinksy, and ZZ Packer. Heís published four novels; literary maverick Dave Eggers edited his most recent, Happy Baby. Heís written an intermittent "Poker Report" about his low-stakes home games for McSweeneyís. Heís taught at Stanford. But Elliottís also a hustler, a free-spirited, tattooed kind of guy whoíll identify himself as a GQ reporter when heís actually writing for Eggersís magazine the Believer, and whoíll sit on a Motel 8 lobby floor with Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Rainey, jokingly offering Kerry staffers free beers if theyíll provide good quotes.

Looking Forward to It wasnít something Elliott had planned. In July of 2003, he had just finished Happy Baby, a dark and explicitly detailed novel described by the New York Times as "surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs." Eggers was still editing the manuscript. "He was taking a long time," Elliott recalls. "Heís a great editor, heís on his own schedule, and thatís just the way it is." So with a meager budget for expenses and an assignment from the Believer to cover Howard Dean, Elliott hit the campaign trail, bouncing among friendsí couches and spending two weeks on the road.

After the 10,000-word article appeared, Picador asked him to author a longer-form book the same way. "I was like, ĎWhat way is that?í " Elliott says. "I didnít know what I was doing. I was just writing whatever, some fiction and digression. And I was like, ĎOh, you mean, without rules?í " Picador said yes. So Elliott gave up his San Francisco apartment, left his girlfriend, flew around the country for a year, and wrote about the experience "without rules."

For Elliott, this meant using his book deal as a license to do pretty much whatever he wanted, and chronicle it. In the book, he sleeps through a speech by Carol Moseley Braun. He tells Howard Dean heís on assignment for GQ when the only thing heís ever written for the menís magazine is a 400-word piece reminiscing about working the midnight shift at an adult bookstore. He writes about how a Dean staffer bet him $5 that her candidate wouldnít get 30 percent of the vote in Iowa; Elliott fell out of favor with the Dean campaign when he posted the bet on his Web site, and Matt Drudge linked to it on the Drudge Report under the headline DEAN STAFFER BETS AGAINST OWN CANDIDATE.

And so Looking Forward to It isnít simply one voterís story. Itís a witty, digressive, personal work written by a man whoís at once a hustler, a fabulist, a diarist, an itinerant, and an observer. Itís a first-person recollection of how addictive public political spectacles can be, told from the vantage point of a guy whoís personally experienced the human consequences of domestic policies. "Politics is entertainment with consequences," he says. "A lot of what you get in the news is so dry. Itís very hard to connect with that ... Iím saying to them, politics can be really, really fun."

STEPHEN ELLIOTT has always toyed with words. The son of little-accomplished writer Neil Elliott, he wrote poetry as a hobby when he was 10, taping papers of his verses all over his bedroom walls "just in case somebody wanted to walk in my room and see how I felt about things." His mother died at a young age, and Elliottís relationship with his father was, to put it mildly, strained: at one point, he recalls his dad handcuffing him to a pipe. At 13, he ran away from home and slept on a convenience-store roof for months; in Looking Forward to It, he remembers celebrating his 14th birthday by breaking into a basement with two friends and quaffing a half-pint of vodka. He hitchhiked from Chicago to Los Angeles. He became a ward of the court, got shuttled to various group homes, failed out of high school, sobered up at 16 (sobriety lasted until he was 22), and eventually wrangled a deal with his principal to graduate. The State of Illinois remained his legal guardian until he turned 18. "I have heavy psychological things dealing with the state," he admits. "The state, for me, is mom and dad."

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Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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