Boys on the Bus

Every generation gets the campaign book it deserves, though usually it comes too late. Stephen Elliott’s book on the first year of this presidential campaign arrives on the eve of the election and at the twilight of the twee literary sensibility, that of Dave Eggers & Co., with which the book has allied itself. Eggers’s books and various satellite publications, the literary-satirical magazine McSweeney’s and the group-hug monthly book review The Believer, have made it their method to apprehend the world with a childlike innocence and then to wield this innocence for their own ends. Among the Believer-ites, Elliott cuts a strange and touching figure. Strange because in real life he ran away from home at the age of 13 and remained until his majority a ward of the State of Illinois; strange, too, because his literary voice is genuinely that of a prickly, wounded child. And touching above all because he is such a fine writer, affected by the hard American landscape, particularly that ravaged stretch of it now charged with choosing our next leader. He inhabits the phony world of Team Eggers so fully that in the end he breaks through into honest utterance—and political maturity, just in time.

Looking Forward to It covers the early Democratic primaries in great detail, detours into Bush country, then concludes, a bit incoherently, at the Democratic convention in Boston. No seasoned reporter, Elliott is basically tagging along on the press buses, and much of the book’s interest derives from the way in which the campaigns’ treatment of Elliott mirrors their treatment of citizens. And in fact, Elliott’s troubles on the campaign trail are the same as they were when he ran away from home. He’s an outcast (he doesn’t represent a major media outlet), and he hasn’t anywhere to sleep. He solves the first problem by lying that he’s on assignment for GQ, and then (after lunch with a Harper’s editor) lying that he’s with Harper’s. As for the second problem, he never does solve it. “I guess I just figured someone in the press fraternity would offer me a floor to crash on in their deluxe hotel suite,” he writes near the beginning of this book, from snowy New Hampshire. And near the end, in chilly Wisconsin, speaking with another journalist he meets at a Ralph Nader rally: “I tell her I don’t have a place to sleep tonight, and she tells me she has a child and a small messy apartment that’s not open to me.”

In a way, you need to have read Happy Baby, the desolate novel-in-stories Elliott published earlier this year about an orphaned boy raised in the child-care institutions of Illinois, to understand where he’s coming from in this matter of sleeping over. To be sure, Elliott needs someone to love him (during one rest stop back home in San Francisco, his girlfriend kicks him out of her apartment in the middle of the night because her other boyfriend is coming over), and he doesn’t have much money (the book is a journey of self-discovery on a budget limited by Elliott’s modest advance from Picador). But the truth is that Elliott needs a place to sleep because it’s cold out there, and he knows just how cold. “Outside it’s starting to snow again,” he wrote in Happy Baby.

I think I’m going to cry. Things are not going to work out. It’s going to be horrible. Look at all that snow, grabbing dirt from the sky and pulling it to the earth.

Looking Forward to It is a lighter book, written at great speed and in much longer sentences. A good portion of it appeared in The Believer, and throughout you can sense how badly Elliott wants to believe. In 2000, he worked for Ralph Nader, but now he goes penitently from Democratic candidate to Democratic candidate, seeking at least a grain of hope. Each encounter is a rising action followed by disappointment. Dean is a truth-teller and a straight shooter and genuinely antiwar—but somehow dorky, and antagonistic toward the press, and then, writes Elliott, “I keep thinking he’s too short to be a professional quarterback.” Edwards is “glowing,” but talks for hours without saying a thing. Even at its pre-Iowa nadir, Kerry’s campaign is a fine-tuned machine, doling out nice meals and accommodations—except that they take his credit card and charge him for all of it. “There’s no way for me to get around the charges,” Elliott writes, “unless I tell MasterCard that I wasn’t in Iowa and deny the whole thing.” After encountering all these master politicos, Elliott falls briefly in love with Dennis Kucinich, who shares with him a vegan meal. “He split his meal with me,” writes Elliott. “I love the guy. Could he be president?” Almost immediately, he answers no.

Just before I go to sleep I ask myself, Why not love your fellow man, why not peace on earth? In the morning the sun has risen over the enormous Coral Ridge shopping mall, the biggest in Iowa. And the shoppers from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are pulling in like ants returning to a hill. I ask myself the same question, Why not peace on earth? And the answer occurs to me immediately—because the other guy wants to rape your women and kill your children.

So Elliott is no believer, but he is an addict. The first half of the book is really a very good memoir disguised as political reportage, and then gradually we find that Elliott has abandoned his unfaithful girlfriend, stopped lying about GQ and Harper’s, and given himself up to the trail. We soon lose the thread of his personal relations because he no longer has any personal relations. “While I’ve been gone,” writes the betrayed Elliott, “all my friends have gotten married and bought houses.” Only Elliott remains true to the campaign.

The book that Looking Forward to It most consciously resembles is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, ’72. Yet Elliott’s book is darker: Thompson was no stranger to viciousness, but he was in some ways a professional connoisseur of it, an observer. Elliott experiences the crumbling of the polity more personally, and he is remarkably attuned to its level of suggested violence. “There’s no mistaking the fear,” he says during a pro-Bush stadium rally in Michigan. “This is a crowd that could turn on us and … there will not be enough security to stop them from tearing off our arms.” Which is pretty funny, unless you recall the scene in Happy Baby in which the kids in his reformatory break the narrator Theo’s leg by kicking at his knee repeatedly until they hear a pop, and then it’s still kind of funny but in a different way.

The book is full of such turns, the unexpected shadings of Elliott’s rapid-fire prose from the funny to the not-so-funny. It’s a perfect reflection of the reign of our child-president, whose blithe unconscious bumblings were so amusing until they became so sinister. Elliott begins the book with some talk of the “youth vote,” but he quickly drops it. There is no particular virtue in either youth or innocence. What is needed on November 2 are approximately 55 million grown-ups, hardened by the knowledge of what a cabal of zealots can do to a democracy, to take the keys back from Junior and never, ever let this happen again.

  Stephen Elliott recently gathered up hipsterati friends like Dave Eggers for Operation Ohio, a reading-tour–cum–voter-registration drive through three Rust Belt campuses. The tour managed to register only about 100 voters at Ohio State University, and Elliott did even worse in inner-city Cleveland (twelve new voters). But he has gained some perspective. “It’s just hard to get a vote, and you have to work at it.” Elliott has so far signed up 1,000 voters to get Election Day wake-up calls from 40 authors (including Michael Chabon and Daniel Handler). The writer of four very dark novels confesses to a brightening outlook: “This book’s the only funny thing I’ve ever written,” he says. “I just find politics so incredibly engaging. It’s the only game worth playing.” 

Looking Forward To It
By Stephen Elliott.
Picador. 306 pages. $14 (paperback original).

Boys on the Bus