(Picador)Theo was brought up in Chicago in a blue-collar area. His father carried a gun, drove a blue Cougar Convertible, and always had a wad of bills in his pocket. His mother died of MS.After his father got blown up in his Cougar, Theo came to know every juvenile hall, detention center, "Central Youth Shelter" and residential holding facility in the city.During his extended stays in these warehouses, he was terrorized and beaten up by the other inmates. "Every time I met a new caseworker they would ask me how I was being treated and I'd say 'Fine,' instead of saying 'I'm being raped.' I'd say 'Good' instead of telling them the other boys jumped me and forced a bar of soap in my mouth."
Theo, understandably, gets a bit bored with the "helpers" who are always in a hurry, carry the same briefcases, ask the same questions. "They don't change a single word. The administrators, guardians, caseworkers, volunteers, hospital staff."
He fears violence, yet as we catch up with him in San Francisco, now in his thirties, he's working at a bagel shop on Valencia Street. It becomes bizarrely clear that Theo feels a certain dignity and peace when he is being beaten on by others.
We find him searching the ads for a lady who will tie him up, choke him, and --- in one case, while watching a movie with her --- shove a hockey puck in his mouth and tape it closed. A hockey puck!
When he tries to get away from her, Ambellina e-mails him:
Did you ever think I was reasonable? I mean, I can be a reasonable person but I don't like being played with. You cannot spend time with me and then send some pathetic excuse to disappear. Is that how you handle things? By running away? It doesn't work like that little boy. Answer your phone the next time I call.
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This one could be a parody: all these folks sitting around the old bagel shop (or later, back in Chicago) with their hair yanked out, black eyes, puncture wounds, cigarette burns on their backs, chests, wrists. It could be pure shock value ... but Elliott is a better writer than that.
And Happy Baby has its own strange logic: the daily fears of his youth were so profound that peace now only becomes manifest in regular (and controlled) pain. While Theo was being raped in prison by the guard, a Mr. Gracie (sic), none of the other prisoners would dare to assault him.
Twenty years later, when Theo finds out where Gracie lives, he starts to shadow him, until the man stops him, and says:
"Don't follow me anymore, Theo. I can't take care of you. I have my own family. You wanted this talk. Fine. Remember I kept you safe. You were safe when I was around. None of those boys did anything to you when I was there. You know why I kept you safe, right?"
And the old bastard turns and leaves. And Theo does nothing.
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When he was young and helpless in prison and at the bottom of the pecking order, a rapist protected him from the gangs. Hurt continues to protect him from the monsters within now:
For years I've been seeing a professional dominatrix. Her dungeon studio is on the second floor of an industrial building, near the Lake Street train ... I came to see her during the Gulf War. She wrapped me in Saran Wrap so I couldn't even move my fingers. She slapped me lightly, then pulled a mask over my head. The mask had a long tube coming off of it so I couldn't see, and she whispered that there was nothing I could do. Then she pinched the tube and I couldn't breathe. It felt like I was relaxing for the first time in my life. I usually go on Fridays but recently it hasn't been working out for me. Recently it hasn't even been close.Note the style, the wonderful switch back-and-forth style (inspired, perhaps, by Donald Barthelme.)
- I couldn't breathe;
- It felt like I was relaxing for the first time in my life;
- I usually go on Fridays, but...Or this, with his one-time girlfriend Maria, talking about whether he was or is a runaway:
"It's just a word. The only times I ever regretted it was when I went back." I rub my thumb along her forearm. I lift my hand to her chin, my burn touching her face. Kyle [her baby] doesn't move at all. He'll outgrow this place and then what will they do? In a flash I wish I was violent and capable of the things people are capable of when they don't care whether or not they get caught. There would be blood everywhere. The baby is sound asleep. It's not fair, I think. No, of course it is.
No, it's not fair: American justice, especially that imposed on the very young, is not fair, certainly not just. In fact, it seems not so far from the justice system that ran Germany some seventy years ago.
Happy Baby is Elliott's fourth book, and it isn't good; it's great.--- Richard Radovich