In his raucous book-length dispatch from the 2004 campaign trail, Looking Forward to It, Stephen Elliott makes brief mention of his latest novel, Happy Baby, as a “dark, hopeless book”–but it’s a characterization to be taken with a grain of salt. Though Happy Baby (just out in paperback from Picador) is at times relentlessly grim, there’s magic in its form. The thirtysomething protagonist, Theo, returns to Chicago from San Francisco, finding a city that has changed. Midway’s a real airport now, for one, and when he visits his former lover Maria in Rogers Park–a woman who, like himself, spent her teen years as a ward of the state in Chicago group homes and has developed a masochistic streak–he finds out she’s got a kid. As he leaves her apartment he tells her he’s out to “run away one more time.” Happy Baby proceeds back in time from this first chapter: to San Francisco, where Theo tries unsuccessfully to shake off a sadist he meets via an adult Internet site, then to Amsterdam, where he works at a sex show, then again to Chicago and his failing marriage and attendant trips to a pair of Lake Street dominatrices. Through it all, nothing comes very easily for the guy. The novel lurches backward chapter by chapter, recounting in terse present-tense narration all that has come before, through adolescence and into childhood, thrusting the cause-and-effect underpinnings of Theo’s embattled days front and center for careful examination. Dark and hopeless as the conclusion may be, on the eve of his mother’s death, there’s an implied emotional movement forward to a time further still from detention centers and lockups and group homes–to the womb. 7 PM, Wed 1/26, Quimby’s, 1854 W. North, 773-342-0910.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Martin.