Like it or not, your physical safety is anything but guaranteed. This harsh reality, and the enigmatic long-term responses to systemic acts of brutality, propel Brad Land’s Goat and Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby.
South Carolinian Land’s memoir strives, understandably if predictably, for catharsis. Goat details the complex interplay of a savage beating the author receives at the hands of two sadistic car thieves, his relationship with a younger but sturdier brother, Brett, and the ritual punishment he experiences in Brett’s university fraternity. Land, by his own account an affable, self-defeating 19-year-old wallflower, is simultaneously overshadowed by and in thrall to his brother’s effortless charm.
These conflicting emotions elicit a stubborn impassivity in Brad that leads him, on the same night, to refuse Brett’s offer of an easy sexual conquest and pick up two psychopathic hitchhikers whom he’ll later remember only as “the smile and the breath.” Their ensuing attack on him, which Land describes in choppy passages that have the rhythm of panicked breathing (“Pushes me down in front of the car. Headlights against my back. Presses my face into stones on the road. They cut into my cheek and forehead”), results in perilously circumscribed grief and an even deeper, more ambivalent dependence on Brett.
Goat‘s next segment is equally visceral, but Land stumbles when he tries to give his brush with violence universal significance. Aimless and depressed, he takes a year off before following Brett to Clemson University and joins Kappa Sigma to please his brother—and, presumably, compensate for his failure to fend off his attackers. His experiences as a subhuman pledge, or “goat,” are rife with abuse and humiliation but lacking in anything like brotherhood, and Land casts them as a more controlled, socially sanctioned version of his earlier beating. After a murky, hazing-induced nightmare, he comes to this conclusion: “I know then that it was the smile and the breath I was dreaming about. Or [fraternity] brothers. Whichever. But it doesn’t really matter. They’re the same thing.” It’s a potent analogy, but by accentuating the similarities Land avoids key differences: The motivations of the black career criminals who beat and robbed him, after all, likely weren’t the same as those of the white, well-to-do Sigs. Violence in Goat comes from the same indeterminate inner source no matter the host or circumstances, and intriguing as that notion is, it lets any number of economic and political causes off the hook.
Not so with Elliott’s novel Happy Baby, an autobiographical heartbreaker that’s more concerned with the ways institutional violence shapes its victims than with its metaphysical origins. Throughout the book, the contradictions of the people who abuse and manipulate the gentle protag, Theo—who, like Elliott, spent his adolescence as a ward of the state in and around Chicago—evade easy categorization; indeed, even Theo’s own actions are a mystery to him and have to be spelled out by others: “You’re jealous. . . . You wish someone would tell you what to do. If you could find a girl to make your decisions you would let her.” The legal and bureaucratic indifference responsible for such behavior, however, looms in the background as Happy Baby‘s unequivocal villain—so much so that Elliott dedicates his sad, angry tale to the state of Illinois.
He also frames the book in reverse order, à la Memento and Irreversible. Happy Baby begins with the adult Theo returning to Chicago to reunite with Maria, an old flame from his group-home days, and ends with a searing glimpse at the disastrous home life that pushed him into state custody in the first place. This structure could easily have been gimmicky, of course, but Elliott isn’t simply playing pomo tricks for meta-mavens: Theo is in a perpetual quandary over his self-destructive acts (for instance, he can only find solace, sexual or otherwise, via humiliating sadomasochistic liaisons), which goads him to want to simultaneously make sense of his horrific past and block it completely. By telling his story backward, Elliott puts us in a similar position of wanting to know/dreading the knowledge, and it’s a graceful strategy that gives Happy Baby its unique veracity and humane edge.
It also allows the narrative to transcend the shocking details of Theo’s life, which Elliott reveals in quick verbal jabs that pepper his otherwise tightly wound prose: “It’s fun, they say, to play during sex,” he relates in an innocuous description of searching for an s&m partner online.
To tie each other up and take control. It’s just sex. It’s just a game. Trade places, let off some steam. I was raped for the first time by a middle-aged caseworker in a small green room in the Chicago juvenile detention facility. . . . Mr. Gracie didn’t ask if it was OK and he didn’t apologize afterward.
The grimmest passages concern this predator, who incongruously figures in the adult Theo’s mind as a source of ambivalent comfort. But the ultimate sucker punch occurs in the novel’s final chapter, where Theo is revealed as an unduly hopeful boy (and presumably going even farther back, the happy baby of the title) who’s desperate to hold on to what little stability his tattered childhood offers. Perhaps the only relief to be had from Happy Baby is the knowledge that its author survived with some of that hope intact.