It seems insufficient to call Stephen Elliott's bracing novel Happy Baby sad. In fact, sadness haunts every page of this book, and it's a sadness from which there is little or no release. The book is constructed as a series of short stories that, in reverse order, tell the life story of Theo, a rootless, unhappy man marred by childhood loss and abuse.
The first story centers on Theo's visits to his first love, Maria and, with each subsequent story, we learn more about these characters and why such a cloud of loss and regret hangs over their encounter. Both, we learn early on, were wards of the state until age eighteen, and both experienced horrifying instances of abuse that left them with a taste for sadomasochism.
Maria's thirst for pain leads her to an abusive lover who, she explains, hurts her in ways that Theo can't (he loves her too much to really harm her). Theo's needs lead him to a series of dominant women -- most of whom he pays, but one of whom he meets in a chat room and forges some semblance of a relationship with.
Each story has the same themes -- pain and loss -- dealt with in different ways. Theo's life has been one tragedy after another, but Elliott doesn't let his work get mired in melodrama. Theo, who is also the narrator, tells his stories matter-of-factly. He suffers, but he doesn't ask for pity. He just tries, valiantly, to keep living in an environment that has made that difficult.
The description of the abuse his characters suffer makes Elliott's book difficult reading, but it's worth the effort. Theo is a sympathetic figure who holds the reader's interest in spite of his background. Though we don't know if it's possible, we desperately hope that Theo will find some peace in his life. It's not easy to make such misery compelling, but Elliott achieves it.