HAPPY BABY

Stephen Elliott, Author . MacAdam/Cage and McSweeney's $21 (191p) ISBN 978-1-931561-62-4

A craving for pain is the only constant in the life of Theo, a victim of the child welfare system, in this grim, unrelenting fourth novel by Elliott (What It Means to Love You , etc.). Told in reverse chronological order, it begins when 36-year-old Theo returns to his native city of Chicago after six years away, visiting an ex-girlfriend called Maria. He knows Maria from their years growing up together in a state institution, where Theo landed after his abusive father was killed and his mother died from multiple sclerosis. After Maria leaves Theo for someone who will hit her harder (" 'I want you to hit me and you want me to hit you. This is terrible' "), Theo drifts into relationships with women who are willing to abuse him. His desire to be hurt stems from the brutal treatment he received as a child in state custody; he is particularly scarred by the memory of Mr. Gracie, a caseworker who raped him but also protected him from the other boys. Like cult favorite J.T. LeRoy, Elliott is fascinated by the psychology of abuse and explores it with great tenacity and restraint. He doesn't quite achieve LeRoy's emotional intensity or immediacy, but he clearly knows his subject—the pointed last line of his author bio reads, "[H]e was born in Chicago, and was a ward of the State of Illinois from age thirteen to eighteen"—and infuses this prickly tale with a surprising sweetness. (Feb. 19)

Reviewed on: 01/26/2004
Release date: 02/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 208 pages - 978-0-312-42449-7
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