A review of Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Happy Baby
By Stephen Elliott
MacAdam/Cage, February 19 2004
ISBN: 1-931561-62-1

In the introduction to a later collection of ‘stories’ (My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, which came out in 2006), Stephen Elliott writes:

This could have been a memoir. It isn’t. Most of it is true… Ultimately, I made the poor marketing choice of calling this a book of stories because there were too many things in it I knowingly made up.

It is tempting also to regard this novel as a memoir and to identify Elliott with Theo, his protagonist; not least because chapter two of Happy Baby appears as a story (entitled ‘Other Desires’) in the aforementioned collection. There are other ways of reading the book, mind, and here I’ll try naively to treat it as a novel, a work of fiction, wholly made-up.

The novel opens with Theo returning to Chicago after some six years to see Maria, someone who he’d first met when both were children. He feels some vague obligation towards her – an insistent worry or a need to protect her – but when he discovers that she herself has a child we are told that that ‘changes everything’.

Later chapters spiral back in time, as though to explain this statement. They treat Theo’s life in other American cities, some curious period spent in Amsterdam, and end in Chicago – the bulk of it in the juvenile care system. That was where Theo and Maria had first met.

This is a novel about growing up in care, surviving sexual abuse (Theo’s paedophile abuser was one Mr. Gracie) and making whatever adjustments or reckonings you need to survive. Outside of the system, of course, because the system cannot be trusted, it has made you what you are. For Theo (and for Maria too, though perhaps for her this is in the past) it involves the embrace of a life of masochism and controlled self-harm. In his emotional life, role is more important than intimacy, the other person being simply a stand-in for a fantasy figure or stuff that’s happened in his past. And violence is a medium used to express need.

We all of us choose what we do with our lives from a finite set of alternatives; and for Theo, in his darkest moments at any rate, love is not on the menu: ‘If I could love I would have loved by now.’ Happy Baby is about a person for whom love, as a possibility, has been taken away. It isn’t any kind of answer, it cannot be. And it is only ‘people that don’t know any better’ who ‘are always optimistic’.

Elliott’s story of a life lived without love is sad and desolate, excoriating in its telling, but there is no denying the beauty of the writing. A great novel.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com