Happy Baby by Stephen ElliottThe first time I heard about Stephen Elliott’s latest book, Happy Baby, it was accompanied by a slight grimace of distaste and a wrinkled nose. “It’s about S & M,” whispered my informant -- meaning, I guess, why read that? Said informant is more puritanical than I. And anyhow, I had reason to suspect otherwise. Though I have not read Elliott’s three previous novels, I had read a couple of articles which chronicled his rags to riches story -- dragging himself out of the Illinois State Child Protective Services system to college, and then to Stanford, where he became a Stegner Fellow, cobbling himself into a writer along the way.
Besides, with an endorsement like that, how could I stay away? What I discovered, when I did dive in to Happy Baby, was that my suspicions were right: the book, which does wander through the seedy underside of sex, drugs, and transient life, is an elegant tome -- and it does what so many contemporary American novels seem be to failing at: it tells a story that is gritty, wrenching, and real.
In fact, it is hard to know where Elliott’s story leaves off and Theo’s -- the narrator of Happy Baby -- begins. Elliott was made a Ward of the Court at age 13, and Happy Baby recounts his experiences in a series of stories that are loosely autobiographical.
We first meet Theo as an adult, when he returns to Chicago to track down his childhood girlfriend, Maria. His relationship with Maria, which pops up from time to time, provides some of the more touching and poignant scenes in the book. In Maria, Theo has found someone who understands his pain and longing -- someone who has also suffered, but persevered, if only barely. There is nothing more pure than that first teenage love, especially when that love is formed under such dire circumstances.
He remembers when he first saw her, at age fifteen, “wearing all pink: pink shoes, pink earrings, pink shorts and shirt. She looked like an unopened pieces of candy. She was shy and scared but I knew something horrible had happened to her because girls don’t often end up in group homes.” But when he returns to Chicago, on a mission that we suspect is really his way of finding some direction in life, she surprises him by answering the door with a baby clinging to one hip -- safe, fine, and in no need of the rescuing that Theo has in mind. As the novel moves back in time, you realize that this is the cyclic pattern that Theo is stuck in -- with Maria, most of all. He wants to rescue everyone, but he realizes that lonely truth: in the end, everyone has to trudge through his or her own life alone, and well-intended interference makes little difference.
And Theo is alone more often than not. In fact, the amount of suffering that Theo endures is heartbreaking. Written in reverse order, the first half of the book recalls scenes from Theo’s adult life, and his struggle to find some clarity of mind, some needed piece that he lost along the way. We watch him through his relationship with dominatrix Ambellina; his failed marriage to unfaithful lawyer wife Zahava; the brief but wistful time spent in a little studio apartment playing house with his teenage love -- yes, Maria. Everyone that Theo surrounds himself with in adulthood is suffering in some way; it is as though, after his years of suffering, he needs the constant camaraderie of the perpetually fucked up in order to measure his own life.
The second half of the book takes us back through his teenage years, spent in juvenile detention centers and group homes until, finally, we meet Theo at the beginning -- a boy of eleven or so, living with his father and ailing mother. By the end of the book, we are able to trace his development from a slightly troubled but routine childhood into his future: a Memento style meandering that makes you want to flip the back to page one as soon as the book ends, searching Theo’s future for signs from his past.
Here, a point of conjecture: I have a friend who read Happy Baby and was annoyed by the order. He wanted to start at Theo’s childhood and work his way up to Theo’s adult life. That format, I argue, is too easy, too predictable. I think that this story works best in Elliott’s reverse order: it is through the series of flashbacks, each chapter taking one step back into Theo’s past, that we learn who Theo is and was. The point is that as the story unfolds, we are able to understand how incidents from his childhood did affect him as an adult -- by reading backwards, we are granted rare but important insight.
Elliott’s style is stark, frank, and unadorned. He writes about s and m, violence, drugs, even prostitutes (when adult Theo finds himself working in the red light district in Amsterdam) in a style reminiscent of Georges Bataille, or JT Leroy. When writing about Theo’s childhood, Elliott’s prose is especially clear and taut. Take this scene, in one of the larger group homes where Theo and friends Marco and Petey get caught in the middle of a gang fight: “We’re against the wall, our backs facing out, our legs spread, our hands pressing into the stone. Petey is on the other side of me, his head down. A smile grows across my face. Marco turns his head slightly and we look at each other and I think Marco is going to start laughing. His face is contorting, his eyes squeezing shut involuntarily, and the tears are running over his cheek, pooling into his mouth. He’s mewing, his tongue licking at the puddles. Behind us, someone is dead. But it isn’t us.”
This book deals with so much pain and sorrow that at times I found myself reaching for something easier to read. But as the book progressed, it casts its spell. Happy Baby is rough reading, but Elliott writes with an honesty and rawness that is rare -- and his writing is exceptionally good. In our sterile, media-ruled world, this book might easily miss the attention it deserves. Read it for the good writing. Read it for the S and M. Read it to understand how our society treats its children and what becomes of them when they mature into adults. But do read it.
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott