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Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby

"Wow."

That's what I said last evening upon finishing Stephen Elliott's impressive Happy Baby. Though the subject matter, particularly the scenes of S&M and drug use, is often quite disturbing, this book has an oddly uplifting quality to it. Elliott based the novel generously on his own childhood as a ward of the State of Illinois, and it's a tightly written adventure through group homes, juvenile detention facilities and ultimately the outside world, from the sex trade of Amsterdam to file-clerk hell in Chicago and on to a San Francisco bagel shop, before inconclusively ending in Chicago.

The book is expertly written in present tense, with the chapters presented in reverse chronological order, with both methods effectively presenting the story. The present tense makes the clear distinction between the not-so-bad now and the protagonist Theo's darker past. More importantly, the reverse chronological order lets the reader know upfront that Theo somehow managed to survive his various ordeals. Had the book been written in standard chronological order, midway through the book the reader could easily have abandoned it, not wanting to see things get any worse for Theo. But in reverse order, I saw that he survived, and continued reading, wanting to know how he became the way he turned out.

As I mentioned, the ending is inconclusive. Theo will again be running away ("...one more time. I've got one left in me.") towards an uncertain but not necessarily grim future. He's survived up to that point, over and over again, and he'll undoubtedly survive one more time. And he insists it will be the last time he runs away, and I couldn't help hoping he finally finds a place to settle down and find the love and inner peace that has always eluded him.

June 10, 2005 in Books | Permalink

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