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A Life Without Consequences (2001)
First of all, let me say that Stephen Elliott deserves to become a bestselling author just for rendering this story as a novel, rather than a memoir. We are mired in a memoir craze that has gone on far too long and has begun to take a genuine toll on literature, encouraging writers to falsify their own lives and invent memories (particularly of long ago dialogues) in order to fit the fashion of the day. Mr. Elliott's personal story--of homelessness, living on roofs and foraging in dumpsters, and then being raised in foster families and Chicago group homes, before being accepted into college and then receiving the prestigious Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford--is so compelling that it would have probably been an easy sell as a memoir. But the result would necessarily have been dishonest, requiring him to reproduce feelings and conversations that occurred in his teens. By casting some of his own experiences in the form of a coming of age novel, he not only follows in a great tradition, he is paradoxically being more honest with the reader in his fiction than are most memoirist in their "non-fiction." I suppose it's too much to ask that his book start a countertrend, but nonetheless Mr. Elliott is to be congratulated for his courage.
As for the book itself, he tells the harrowing story of a troubled adolescent named Paul who runs away from home after his father holds him down and shaves his head. The father's behavior seems to have generally deteriorated in the wake of the death of Paul's mother. Paul ends up sleeping in the streets, before attempting suicide and being sent to the Henry Horner Children's Adolescent Center. Refusing to return to his father's house, the fourteen year old Paul falls in with a group of fellow delinquents at the center, including Tanya, a black girl with whom he has a budding romance. Paul and Tanya run away from Horner and live in a tool shed but are eventually caught and separated. Over the next few years Paul bounces around the juvenile system from bad situation to worse, but along the way he manages to eke out an education and meets Jessica, an upper middle class girl who can't imagine anything really bad happening in her life. This relationship falters and as the story ends, Paul and Tanya have been reunited and are making plans to head West, where Paul has been admitted to college.
The bureaucratic family services system that Mr. Elliott reveals to us is pretty much as bad as we would expect, like Dickens with the lurking dangers of sex and drugs thrown in. The reader inevitably feels sorry for the kids who are enmeshed in this cycle of doom and despair. Yet, Paul is a somewhat off-putting guide to this world. For one thing, he's essentially in the system voluntarily, having turned down his Dad's offer to return home. For another, the first person, present tense narration tends to emphasize his role as observer of, rather than as a participant in, or even a victim of, the system. If Paul himself comes across as somewhat detached from the whole scene, it's that much easier for us to distance ourselves emotionally from the action. But most importantly, with Paul having forsaken family and with his dismissive attitude towards any religious folks who make an appearance, one wonders what the alternative is to this sort of impersonal government conveyor belt. And, of course, there's a sense in which, no matter how bad Paul has it, he's telling us what we want to hear, because he still makes it out. He reaffirms the belief that even in such dire straits, personal initiative and hard work offer a means of improving one's own life. In this sense, Paul, who actually reads books and strives to succeed in school, stands as a rebuke to the kids around him who do not make a similar effort. This was probably not Mr. Elliott's intent, but there's an element of Horatio Alger to it all.
The book, not surprisingly for a first novel, ends up being a tad uneven. Though it is admirably brief, sections of it are underwritten and the story is a bit episodic. But Mr. Elliott is someone we want to root for, both for what he's already achieved and for his apparent continuing willingness to chart a challenging course. There's enough that's good here to leave us with hope that he'll do even better in the future. I look forward to his next effort.
See also:Author Submissions
-SHORT STORY: Politically Inspired Fiction: Perpetual Check (Stephen Elliott, March 23, 2003, AlterNet)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : A Life Without Consequences by Stephen Elliott (McAdam Cage Publishing)
-BOOK SITE : A Life Without Consequences (Nowhere 500)
-EXCERPT : from A Life Without Consequences (Sun Magazine)
-ESSAY : A Month Without Rest : Travel Notes From Israel During The Height Of The Intifada (Stephen Elliott, Nowhere500)
-INTERVIEW : with Stephen Elliott (Teen Reads, November 27, 2001)
-INTERVIEW : Truth and Consequences: an interview with author Stephen Elliott (Gregg Shapiro, Windy City Times, The Voice of Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Community, Sept. 26, 2001)
-PROFILE : The Making of Stephen Elliott : How a product of Chicago's group homes became a local literary cause célèbre (MARK ATHITAKIS, August 2001, SF Weekly)
-REVIEW : of Life Without Consequences (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of Life Without Consequences (Kevin Davis, Network Chicago)
-REVIEW : of of Life Without Consequences (Todd Dills, New City Chicago)
-REVIEW : of Life Without Consequences (Jean Peerenboom, Green Bay Press Gazette)
-REVIEW : of Life Without Consequences (JILL WOLFSON, San Jose Mercury News)
Thanks for your excellent review of my son's book. You were the only reviewer who saw through the manipulation, and who noted the odd fact that Steve could have come home at any time. In fact, there were numerous people willing to take him in, including a wealthy uncle. Also you will notice that there is no mention of him having to work his way through college. So obviously he had money from somewhere.
- Neil Elliott
- Oct-23-2002, 00:22