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by Stephen Elliott
MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Apr 7th 2003

What It Means to Love You

This novel is a gritty view of Chicago’s sexual underground. In terse almost unemotional style it chronicles just under a year in the lives of two male strippers and a young female prostitute.

What It Means to Love You by Stephen Elliott is set in the Halsted Street section of Chicago. (Halsted is home to runaways, drugs, seedy bars & club, and the sex trade.) Anthony is a 34-year-old heterosexual male stripper whose body is starting to show its age. His life is going nowhere until he meets Brooke, a 17-year-old prostitute and her boyfriend Lance, a 27-year old bisexual male stripper. Anthony is a stripper by choice because he loves to dance. He structures his life around keeping his body in shape and improving his dancing skills. He is heterosexual and only grudgingly (it is in his contract) socializes at the bar with the men who offer seductive invitations and stuff money in his thong. Lance, on the other hand, uses his physical beauty and spices his lack-luster dancing with sexual gestures in order to attract potential clients for his more lucrative professional as a homosexual prostitute. Lance is also an addict and is only interested in the money that will buy him more drugs and liquor. While a homosexual by profession, his one true love is Brooke. Two years earlier, 15-year-old Brooke ran away from her upper crust home in the suburbs with Lance, then a construction worker. She became a prostitute because she wanted to be self-supporting and considered “the work” easy to do. For her, being a prostitute was a constant source of male adoration and an excuse for an endless supply of “one-time wear” clothing. Each came to Halsted for a different reason, but during the brief course of the novel one would leave only to return, one would die there, and one would come to mature acceptance there.

All of the characters in this novel are damaged. Whether through consequences or bad choices, each stumbles down the path of the walking wounded. Anthony left home at 13-year-old to join the circus becoming a “carnie”. Finally, he landed in Chicago and found a job dancing. Lance was an ex-con. In a juvenile detention center, Lance’s “pretty boy” looks and his youth led to rape and an education in bartering with his body. Brooke left home hoping with time her mother would die and leave her father available to be hers. Brooke’s parents are, as the reader can imagine, equally damaged. Her father is a workaholic pillar of the community with roving fingers and her mother is a former beauty queen now grown fat and bitter. Throughout this novel, the reader will meet predators, their victims, and a few survivors on Halsted Street.

Stephen Elliott is an author and creative writing instructor. Raised as a ward of the state, he floated in and out of numerous institutions and homes. Against the odds, he earned a Bachelors degree at the University of Illinois and a Master of Arts degree from Northwestern University. “To support his writing habit he worked as a stripper, a cabdriver, a bartender, and a marketing executive.” (from his website http://www.stephenelliott.com)  Elliott was awarded the 2001 Stegner Prize and Fellowship for “emerging writers in fiction and poetry” from Stanford University. Currently Elliott is the Marsh McCall lecturer in the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. He is the author of Jones Inn (1998); A Life without Consequences (2001); and What It Means to Love You (2003).
            What It Means to Love You by Stephen Elliott is a rough look at the even rougher Chicago sex trade scene. This book is about living on the edge and that is where it will take the reader. Do you dare walk on the wild side? Recommended.

 © 2003 Su Terry

 Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.