You might not think that a novel that features sexual abuse, drug use, random violence, sadomasochism, gambling and graphic descriptions of an Amsterdam peep show could be described as "winsome," but such is the strange power of Stephen Elliott's "Happy Baby." (The title isn't as perverse as it sounds, and if it's meant to be ironic, it isn't in some smartass way.) In some ways, this is a familiar kind of story, a harrowing tale about how a wretched childhood of abandonment and abuse can lead to an adult life of emotional damage and sexual confusion. In a friendlier publishing climate than the one we live in now, Elliott might be widely recognized as the latest exponent of what might be called the junkie-confessional mode of American literature, in the vein (so to speak) of Jim Carroll, Hubert Selby Jr., Piri Thomas, David Wojnarowicz and Denis Johnson.
Like much of those writers' work, "Happy Baby" may be at least partly autobiographical. Theo, the novel's narrator, spends his teen years living in a succession of group homes as a ward of the state of Illinois, and so did Elliott. But as wrenching as the details of Theo's life are, this is an ambitious and carefully constructed literary novel at least as much as it is a gut-spilling memoir. It's easy to miss that; Elliott's style is terse and unvarnished, free of the high-flown, flowers-in-the-gutter lyricism of most of the above-named writers. His great accomplishment here is the precise incarnation of a protagonist who, for all his damage and dysfunction, never becomes a hard-ass or a macho creep. "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," Theo reflects early in the story. But he isn't; he remains the same sweet, sensitive kid from beginning to end.
At some point in his 30s, Theo returns to his hometown of Chicago to find his old flame Maria, leaving his current girlfriend Ambellina -- the one who likes to slap him around and burn him with cigarettes -- back in San Francisco. Maria has a baby and has left her abusive boyfriend; Theo realizes she doesn't need him anymore but isn't sure what he's going to do next.
What's more, we're never going to find out. As subsequent chapters reveal, Theo's story travels backward in time, through his S/M relationship with Ambellina, an interlude as a sex-show barker in Amsterdam, a brief and unhappy marriage in Chicago and his on-again, off-again romance with Maria. As we move through the years in reverse, with masterly economy, we learn more and more about the devastating events of Theo's childhood. So when we get there we're prepared for most of it: the vicious delinquent who breaks his leg, the caseworker who rapes him on a weekly schedule, the lovely apparition of a Latina girl in pink who looks like "an unopened piece of candy" (it's Maria, of course), the horrifying deaths of both Theo's parents.
As in Carroll's "Basketball Diaries" or Thomas' "Down These Mean Streets," the point of "Happy Baby" is not merely to document the crimes inflicted on Theo or those he inflicts on himself (or, more rarely, on others). Nor is it to celebrate the charms of life on the scuzzier fringes of urban existence, Jean Genet style, although Elliott writes scenes of drug use, violence and explicit sexuality with admirable clarity and simplicity. Here is Theo, high and drunk, shooting dice with a couple of lowlifes and worrying about Maria: "Outside it's starting to snow again. I think I'm going to cry. Things are not going to work out. It's going to be horrible. Look at all that snow, grabbing dirt from the sky and pulling it to the earth. Hiding it beneath the white surface. It's enormous, this city, it swallows everything. Maria lives out there in a building with bricks over the windows."
As damaged and dysfunctional as he is, something in Theo is unruined -- even virtually untouched -- by his experiences; part of him remains the "happy baby" of whom we catch the barest glimpse at the story's end (which is to say its beginning). It sounds like burbling cliché to describe a book like this as a tale of miraculous survival, or a fable demonstrating that a literary sensibility can grow even in the stoniest soil. Let's say instead that "Happy Baby" is a most impressive little novel, heartbreakingly and bewilderingly alive in a way most bigger books can't even imagine.