by Stephen Elliott
Pushed and yanked into the light when we are first born, we know nothing about what comes next. In minutes, our instincts long for food, for warmth, and the more they are provided, the more we expect those needs to be met. It is only over time that we learn of disappointment, of pain — some of us are luckier than others. Some of us know the perils of life early on, hardship and uncertainty thrust upon ourselves through an odd mix of personal choice and environment. In Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby, a thirty-six year old man named Theo visits an old girlfriend, Maria, who now has a baby of her own. The story branches backwards, uncovering the moments that led Theo to the present. At times battered and broken, Theo searches for meaning and solace in his everyday.
Reading Happy Baby after already reading Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries, it’s impossible not to compare the two and notice the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel. Like Theo, Elliott lost his mother at a young age and has an abusive father. Like Theo, Elliott was a ward of the state in Illinois during his teenage years and spent time in group homes. He attempted suicide; he attempted to block out the world by concentrating on simple pain. The sum total of what is and isn’t true remains hard to determine without knowing the man personally, but what’s important is that it all feels true.
Within the realm of “simple pain,” much of the book deals with Theo’s involvement in BDSM, either through the services of a mistress or by more “typical” romantic relationships (though of course the argument can be made that it’s all romantic in some way). To anyone uninitiated to that variety of bedroom culture, the willing violence could be a bit jarring or baffling at first. However, the need for tangible wounds and how they mix with pleasure makes more sense as the pages go on:
I hand her the belt and stand in front of her, turning around, pressing my fingers into the wall. I hold my breath and then the belt whips across my back. I feel the sting and my mind goes blank for a second, the warmth of pain covering me as my breath returns.
Elliott’s words don’t strain for meaning through flowery metaphor — I hate to use the word “stark,” since that’s the go-to adjective for any work dealing with sex in a straightforward way. Spare feels more accurate. Much like I imagine Theo, and to a certain degree, Stephen himself, the writing is sinuous, firm, and yet childlike. Every person Theo encounters, even those who frighten him, are treated with affection.
He starts to move his hand, but I press my face against it, pushing into his palm.
“Don’t follow me anymore, Theo. I can’t take care of you. I have my own family. You wanted to have this talk. Fine. Remember, I kept you safe. You were safe when I was around. None of those boys did anything to you when I was there. You know why I kept you safe, right?”
I nod my head.
“That’s right. But you’re on your own now. Take care of yourself.” Mr. Gracie pulls his hand away, slaps my knee with the paper. I hear the squeak of the bus door opening. The sound of boots in a hallway.
The most effective books, for me, involve longing. We all long for something, and Theo longs for a caretaker, to have someone who will meet his needs and provide direction. He wishes to yield, to let all the fear and the loneliness drop away into some sort of balance. He wants acceptance, to be remembered.
If you’re not already signed up for Stephen Elliott’s Daily Rumpus emails, and if you’re otherwise uninitiated to his work, I suggest remedying this shortfall as soon as possible.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.