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Happy Baby Hardcover – February 19, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.--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.
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From Booklist

Don't let the title throw you: Elliott's Happy Baby is anything but. The Stanford University lecturer and former Wallace Stegner Fellow peels back the layers of his painful past in this searing examination of the consequences of sexual abuse. A ward of the state of Illinois from the age of 13 to 18, Elliott recounts his own experiences through the eyes of 36-year-old Theo, a man emotionally eviscerated by years of mental and physical torture. Beginning in the present and unraveling back to years of sexual molestation in Chicago's juvenile-detention centers, the street-smart narrator fearlessly dissects a series of dysfunctional relationships in which abuse is equated with affection. From the male caseworker who raped Theo at age 12 to the girlfriend who burned his limbs with cigarettes, Elliott's fourth novel recalls a life defined by longing for both love and pain. Blending the edginess of Augusten Burroughs with the raw emotion of Marguerite Duras,^B this compelling confessional reveals a ravaged soul seeking solace and resolution in the wake of unspeakable crimes. Allison Block
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 191 pages
  • Publisher: MacAdam/Cage Publishing; First Edition edition (February 19, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1931561621
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931561624
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,419 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: 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.
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