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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars made a believer out of this skeptic
I picked this up because it made several "best of 2004" lists, and after the first couple chapters/stories, I thought, Hmph, nothing much here but your typical skimpy ("understated"), edgy tales of drugged-out, sex-fringe losers. Another writer just following a certain fashion, I thought. But I kept reading, and I'm so glad I did. The book is brilliant.

The...
Published on January 28, 2005 by Steve S.

versus
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The sad effects of sexual abuse.
"Happy Baby" is about a child who experiences so much abuse that it is all he knows and when he grows up, finally able to get away from it, he seeks it out himself. It's like when the abuser robs you of your childhood and innocence he robs it forever; it's a scar that cannot heal and will most likely only get worse.

The story is told in reverse and gets much...
Published on December 5, 2007 by Jose Jones


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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars made a believer out of this skeptic, January 28, 2005
By 
Steve S. (Chicago, IL United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
I picked this up because it made several "best of 2004" lists, and after the first couple chapters/stories, I thought, Hmph, nothing much here but your typical skimpy ("understated"), edgy tales of drugged-out, sex-fringe losers. Another writer just following a certain fashion, I thought. But I kept reading, and I'm so glad I did. The book is brilliant.

The material accrues power as you go, even though the prose is so lean and spare. Because of the reverse chronology (in each story the main character is a little younger), you'd think the plot would be spoiled, but the heartbreak you feel for this character just deepens and deepens as you get to see what made him into the man you first encounter. It's not a gimmick--it's told in just the right order. As a plus, the author's evocation of Chicago is perfectly detailed.

The story captures the abuse and neglect which are a hidden but too common aspect of our society. It really challenged my perspective and even made me burn to see some changes in the way we deal with problem kids. Excellent work.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly told tale of tragedy, March 31, 2004
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Stephen Elliott really hits the mark with Happy Baby. It is a horribly honest and self-effacing look at the torment one man (and the folks in his life) have gone through having been abandoned in the Chicago juvenile care system. All throughout the story, Elliott speaks honestly and beautifully, exposing his most vulnerable side in an eloquent way:
"He would come and get me about once a week; I never knew exactly when. I'd wait in my room for him. I remember Mr. Gracie's hands closing around my neck, how I couldn't breathe, and then how I didn't want to breathe. I remember how his body felt warm on my back and how, when he pulled away from me, I felt exposed, as if somebody had yanked a blanket off me."
The story is heavy and will linger with you. Fans of Augusten Burroughs will see some similarities here, but don't expect any laughter (or very little.) The novel is both story-driven and literary. Worth the price.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hand over face, July 3, 2004
By 
David Rossi (San Antonio, TX United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
I found this book on top of a garbage can in the French Quarter, looked it over from cover to title and placed it in my bag. From the illustration on the cover to the quote by J.T. Leroy, I dove into it with a small idea of what to expect. After spending a day in bed with Theo and the people tangled up with his story, I stumbled out from my apt. and into a thunderstorm that had been raging all day, not aware of the rain and forgetting why I was on the street.
This reaction to Happy Baby, the result of being subjected to a work of art that slams into my solar plexus, kept me under its spell for several hours, the world of Theo spinning around my head, leaving me an amnesiac zombie.
The easy delivery, the immediacy of every line and every device used in such a way as to hide its presence has me enrapt. Brilliant!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll be thinking about this book for weeks., March 25, 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Happy Baby is vigorous and exquisite. The language is sure-footed, lyrical, and demanding. Our narrator Theo, seemingly steadfast through uncertainty, consistently allows us to look under his bed, in his closets, and deep into his heart. Elliott's true feat was creating a novel where important and delicate subject matters are accessible to all types of readers. Happy Baby is simply a really good book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel of Institutional Violence, June 25, 2004
By 
Charles J. Rector (Woodstock, IL United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby is an autiobiographical novel based on his growing up as a ward of the state of Illinois. It begins with the shocking home life that lead to the narrator being placed in the state's foster care program in the first place.
One aspect that this novel explores is the fact that many state caseworkers who are supposed to look out for the best interests of the children actually prey on them. Some of the grimmest scenes in this novel involve the rape of the narrator by sex crazed bureaucrats.
Happy Baby is a novel that exposes a side of American life that many government officials would like to keep covered up. It is highly recommended reading.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars raw, honest and utterly unflinching prose., June 7, 2004
By 
Felicia Sullivan (New York, ny United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Written by Katherine Darnell, of small spiral notebook
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott is a piercing novel, unflinchingly narrated by a young man named Theo, a former Ward of the Court in the state of Illinois. Theo's life is one of continual movement and instability. He travels from bad group homes to abusive detention centers to dangerous schools; everywhere he goes, slipping through another crack, forsaken by another figure of authority. Guards both abuse and protect Theo, and caseworkers ask, "So how are they treating you?" without really caring to hear the answer. Despite an astoundingly complicated superstructure of State bureaucracy, Theo is resoundingly alone in the world. Elliott creates an overwhelmingly bleak world, but with his brilliant, achingly sparse brushstrokes, he is able to portray this world without resorting to over-effect. Theo and his compatriots' emotions and surroundings are written evocatively, without any sense of having been overwritten or belabored.
The strength of Elliott's language coupled with his clear affection for Theo makes the story soar. Elliott's tale is Dickensian in its themes of wayward childhood horror, abandonment, and artful darkness. Elliott has constructed a narrative that travels from the present into the past; each chapter (which is somewhat akin to a self-contained story) slips gently into the period of time just before that of the previous one. Elliott's genius lies in his ability to convey enough information in the preceding chapters so that the story flows gracefully, with everything coming together neatly. It would be very easy for Elliott to rely on the cleverness of the technique rather than forcing the story to stand on its own merits. But fortunately Elliott is a writer with enough talent that he completely avoids this type of literary laxity, and he creates something altogether original and incredibly powerful with the reverse-narrative technique. The effect of moving backwards in time makes the novel all the more resonant; as the reader travels into Theo's formative years, we know all too clearly the emotional havoc that was wreaked in their wake.
Theo's youth inside the bureaucracy of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is a disaster. The facilities are grim, the employees are either negligent or sadistic, and the rare caring adult never lasts very long. His parents are both dead, which leaves him no other option. Theo finds love with a girl named Maria who arrives on the scene wearing innocent pink, initially possessing a charming, furtive naivety. Yet soon Theo realizes that Maria is overwhelmingly haunted by past abuses, and she craves a measure of pain and mistreatment that Theo refuses to deliver. After Maria sinks into the dark recesses of Chicago with a brutal man named Joe, Theo marries a woman named Zahava who cheats on him. Theo is aware of her infidelities, yet because of his neediness and familiarity with mistreatment, he does little to confront this situation. He lives in Amsterdam for a while, working as a barker for a sex show. Theo remains above all of the cities in which he lives, never tethered closely to any one place, never sure where he might stay, always meekly hungering for abuse, always courting some small measure of disaster and punishment. After moving to San Francisco, a woman named Ambellina becomes his companion, and Theo finds her rigorous, titillating punishments a cleansing relief. He answers her ad: "East Bay Woman looking for a toy to abuse. Must be full time. No equivocating." She slaps him, pulls his hair, and scratches him, while simultaneously promising protection and screaming abuse. It is inside this whirlwind that Theo feels safe. The first chapter of the book depicts Theo's returning to Chicago, visiting with Maria, who appears to have found serenity and peace with the birth of her charming baby boy.
Elliott has created a work of great art. After reading the final chapter, which manages to read as both completely heartbreaking, and also as a comfortingly uplifting coda, it is clear that Stephen Elliott is a writer of incomparable talent. The effect of reading this book is akin to having the wind knocked out of you - painful, shocking, and thrilling at the same time.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The agonizing death of innocence, July 10, 2004
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Theo is a young man of 36 years, returning from the West Coast to his roots in Chicago. These are not the same roots we normally think of, those of us who have known the security of family, parents, siblings, various eccentric relatives. But Theo's roots are misshapen, deeply twisted from the horrors of the child welfare system, the agonizing childhood of the dispossessed who are not visible in everyday society, except perhaps to one another.
Working backwards, Theo begins his story in the present, tortured days where his energy is absorbed by the need for the release of physical pain. His only safety is in familiarity and ritual, so he seeks those of similar needs, where days are measured by degradation and emotional anguish so deep it can only be temporarily expunged.
Growing up in the child welfare system in Illinois, Theo is thrown into a murky, indifferent world, one where soul-dead predators rule. The social workers, too over-burdened to be effective, have their enthusiasm crushed early on in this game, where the only way to survive is to ignore the chaos and violence. Good intentions are quickly reduced to a belief that these children cannot be saved, left at the mercy of their caretakers, who feed freely on the defenseless.
The power of Happy Baby is in its structure: Elliott throws the netherworld of sexual deviance in your face. If you don't like it, don't look at it...there is no lack of customers. The author peels away Theo's psyche like the skin of an onion, exposing each tender layer in the systematic destruction of an innocence most people take for granted.
Society doesn't like to examine its failures, let alone acknowledge them. Take a long, hard look at Theo's evolution into a tortured, barely-functional fringe-dweller whose sense of self is virtually non-existent, clinging to life by its lowest common denominator.
After reading this book, what I find absolutely stunning is the enormity of this self-perpetuating social issue that continues to deform and destroy the unfortunate children it purports to protect. Happy Baby is a painful read. While the story is neither comfortable nor entertaining, this author refuses to be intimidated by taboo or socially-unacceptable topics; rather, Elliott adds his powerful voice to the rising howl of outrage at the abused, disenfranchised and ignored wards of society. Luan Gaines/2004.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars i keep thinking about this book, March 5, 2004
By 
Eric B. Martin (San Francisco, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
There are moments in Happy Baby that I keep thinking about . The three kids standing back to back to back in the eye of a riot. The two lovers arguing quietly over who must do what to whom. The chance conversation with the man who hurt Theo as a child, all those years ago.
And moments, too, that I almost didn't want to read, except the voice carried me through-a confident voice that keeps you reading even as it does not hesitate to say some terrible things few writers ever say. I don't know if it's those juxtapositions or the tiny details or the rhythm of the language, but I read this book without stopping. It's a book I feel like I somehow keep reading even if it's been weeks since I last closed it shut.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masochist and Willing Martyr, May 26, 2004
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
I believe this is Stephen's best work to date. Of course, my opinions are somewhat biased. I applaud him for his honesty and courage in writing about a character with submissive and masochistic leanings.
As I read this, I found many of his views on Domination and submission disturbing. The sensationalism of this lifestyle, as a tawdry and illicit form of sexual deviation, is not one I happen to share. I had to constantly remind myself that this was HIS character's truth, his voice. Stephen Elliott (both in person and through his words) is a male who inspires those around him (in an almost Marilyn Monroe-type fashion) to want to 'save' him. His character, Theo, is the eternal martyr-- a slave to his own demons and past.
After reading this book, it is hard not to feel as if one has failed him somehow...
However, there is one Truth that must be kept in mind: We ALONE are responsible for our failures.
A hamster can choose to either get off the wheel or run himself into the grave. Unfortunately, emotional & physical masochists (like Theo) often THRIVE on this pain and for them the wheel can become never-ending.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing and impressive, November 6, 2004
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
This is a deeply disturbing nightmare of a book; that is not to say it is not good. Told in streamlined and focused prose in reverse chronilogical order HB begins with 36 year-old Theo returning to Chicago where he was a word of the state from 12 to 18. Elliot does not flinch in depicting the psychological damage and its resultant actions on Theo. Theo, who was sexually abused while in a home, is incapable of intimacy without suffering extreme violence. Elliot depicts the results and the cause in honest and troubling detail. We trace Theo's life back to when he was a child of eleven right before his father, a thief, was shot and killed. Though far from a normal life as a child, he at least had someone who cared for him in his own way. The title reflects that Theo has never been--and never will be--truly happy since he was a small child. The author blurb indicates SE was a ward of the state of Illinois from the ages of 13 to 18. Though painful and incredibally difficult to read, Happy Baby sheds light on a group of people who most of us have little contact with and even less insight into what made them who they are.
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Happy Baby
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott (Paperback - January 1, 2005)
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