12 of 12 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.
Published on January 28, 2005 by Steve S.
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
Most Helpful First | Newest First
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars made a believer out of this skeptic,
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly told tale of tragedy,
"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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll be thinking about this book for weeks.,
By A Customer
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hand over face,
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!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Novel of Institutional Violence,
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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars raw, honest and utterly unflinching prose.,
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.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars i keep thinking about this book,
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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The agonizing death of innocence,
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.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masochist and Willing Martyr,
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars raw & eloquent,
This review is from: Happy Baby (Paperback)this was a gorgeous book, that crept up on me slowly, but with considerable warmth and power. I liked the way it started at the end, and then unraveled through the past, working its way to the present. Elliott's facility with dialogue and way with character means that the mini- almost self-contained- stories that comprise each chapter leave a lasting impression- I found myself thinking about certain scenes for days - running into his ex on the train, the stand-off in the group home... and his father! such a beautiful book, so much heart, a great read...
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott (Paperback - January 1, 2005)