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He failed out of school and toyed with heroin and crack, he says, until he hit his moment of clarity at age 16. "I like to think of myself as a sharp, funny guy, and all of a sudden I'm fucking stupid. So I made a decision" -- he snaps his fingers -- "and that was it." He graduated from high school after negotiating a deal with his principal -- if he got straight A's in the group home school for two years, he would get to go to the real high school, Mather High, across the street. He describes that time in his first book, a slim, street-tough novel called Jones Inn published two years ago.
Just like that. It's a writer's story; you're not sure what to make of it, and you don't want to believe half of it. But, here: "He was a very troubled young man, but eventually he cleaned up his act and resolved some of his drug problems," says Dr. Robert Bloom, director of the Jewish Children's Bureau of Chicago, which oversaw Elliott during his teen years and covered his college costs. "He's always been kind of a hustler in a way. He could get by on whatever the situation was. He lived as a ward of the state, but he never needed money for anything."
The people at the JCB and at his high schools were good enough to leave him alone, according to Elliott. "I don't credit them with my turnaround," he says. "I credit them with not fucking me up while I was turning myself around."
The Stegner Fellowship was, in his words, "something I put in the mail and just forgot. You send a piece of paper and something you've written. Thousands of people apply for this, it's ridiculous. They pay you $18,000, and you don't have to do anything. And you get all this name rec."
In an e-mail, Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy's Life and director of the Stegner Fellowship, says Elliott's work stands out "because of its restrained, sophisticated handling of highly charged material -- the struggles of children stranded and deeply wounded by their parents to retain their dignity and human sympathy and even their humor as they make their way through the various institutions and therapies and foster homes intended to restore them to society, often as not with catastrophic results." He calls Elliott "a wonderful writer, humane, surprising, funny, with a voice of his own and a canny sense of form. We were all excited and moved by his work."
Elliott will begin a 16-city tour to promote A Life Without Consequencesin the fall. In the publishing industry that's called a display of confidence, especially when the publisher is Macadam-Cage, a relatively small-potatoes San Francisco firm. Macadam-Cage editor Pat Walsh was tipped off to Elliott's book by a New York publisher who thought it was worth a look. "After the first 20 pages I knew I wanted it," Walsh says. "It was well written and honest. I see a lot of well-written stuff that isn't honest."
Walsh has bought the rights to everything Elliott writes over the next two years, and has him on a monthly stipend to keep Elliott writing. The book comes out in October with a promotional budget of $50,000 in a bid to make Elliott the next big thing. Walsh is banking on a few trends in literary fiction that Elliott's work neatly dovetails into: an ongoing fascination with memoirs, the success of stories by and about hard-living youths (like Sarah, by San Franciscan J.T. LeRoy), and a growing distaste for the irony-laced literary gamesmanship produced by the Dave Eggers set.
Instead Elliott opts for a more direct style in Consequences. He describes the group homes in this way:
The one thing every group home kid has in common is at some point they were ignored by someone. Every group home is different. Some have sports teams. Some are out in the woods five miles from the nearest hitchhiking road. Many line the housing projects and the least valuable pieces of land in the nation's biggest cities. The worst group homes are fish tanks, gladiator arenas, thirty to a room, make friends fast, hope for the best. In the worst group homes we just kill each other quickly. The state doesn't want to know, we do not want to tell.
To hear Elliott tell it, his father was doing the ignoring, but he is careful about not coming across as a victim. Besides, they're talking now. "He's not this fearsome, menacing guy anymore," he says. "He didn't know how to control his temper. He was like a child. No, not a child -- a fucked-upchild. A big chunk of our relationship is missing, and it's never going to be there.
"I'm sure he'd be happy to talk to you. Just go easy on him."
"I have a big voice," says Neil Elliott on the phone from his home in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. He does have a big voice -- a Mike Ditka, alpha-male boom. "I used to yell at my kids, and I didn't realize how much damage I was doing to them, the psychological violence. I kind of drove Steve out of the house."