The Bat Mobile

A talk with Stephen Elliott, novelist turned campaign junkie

In the months before the 2000 election, Stephen Elliott, a devoted member of the Nader "Corporate Clean-Up Crew," barged into Democratic offices throughout the South, handing out bars of soap. Dressed as a janitor, he gave speeches about moral tidiness, putting on puppet shows (complete with Gore- and Bush-headed socks) to dramatize the concept. Since then, novelist (and Voice contributor) Elliott has swung to the Democratic right, hurtling over pesky "speed bumps" like Kucinich and Sharpton along the way. In Looking Forward to It, his memoir of the 2004 campaign, he "flew around the country like a deranged bat," less interested in the Democratic candidates than the emotional dilemma of ending up on their side. "I was already compromising with Dean," he tells the Voice. "Then I had to go one step further with Kerry. It was a major decision—it felt like the end of my youth."

With each chapter representing one month of the campaign, Looking Forward to It, like any good road novel, is consumed by logistics: Perpetually in need of money and/or a press pass, Elliott rarely gets into the major events but seems energized, nonetheless, by the tedious process of driving to them (see subchapters "A Missed Parade," "What Was That All About," "Oops I Broke a Sodomy Law"). He didn't vote until age 28 (he's now 32), and takes pride in his inexperience. "Political journalism," he says, "is something I know nothing about."

Ex-Naderite Elliott follows the Dems.
photo: Greg Martin
Ex-Naderite Elliott follows the Dems.

Details

Looking Forward to It
By Stephen Elliott
Picador, 303 pp., $14
Buy this book

Elliott's three loosely autobiographical novels are dark and private: In this year's Happy Baby, the orphaned narrator, Theo, grows up in juvenile detention centers, abused and raped by his caseworkers. A former ward of the court himself, Elliott says it took a while to connect his passion for politics to the fact that he was raised by the state. Toward the end of Looking Forward to It, bad memories creep in (the DNC provokes a "nervous calm, like a child waiting to be hit"), but while his fictional characters are disgusted with their country—Theo calls America a giant "prison"—the campaign journal stays strangely hopeful. He describes deposing Bush as the "most inherently patriotic act possible," and (with only a few sobs of nostalgia) dismisses anti-establishment leftists—obstacles to the process—as "drug addicts," "shamans," and "freaks." Elliott's relationship with the government forms a neat narrative arc: victim, then dissenter, then defender. Still, he understands it is desperation—more specifically, "the big bad dictator"—that has pushed him so far mainstream. "When a guy like me is accepting a guy like Kerry," he says, "it's because the alternative is so much worse. . . . Idealism, you say. I say, Ha!"

 
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