Episodes from the life of a man damaged by sexual abuse and other mischief during seven years in Chicago’s state-run juvenile institutions.
“Adults are always waiting to attack and you have to do everything possible not to disturb them.” That’s Theo’s chilling insight into those seven years. Elliott has drawn on his experiences as a ward of the court in previous novels (A Life Without Consequences, 2001, etc.), and in this, his fourth, he peels the onion, first presenting Theo as an adult, then moving back and ending with a ten-year-old on the cusp of his family’s disintegration. Afraid (like everyone else) of his criminal father, raped repeatedly by a caseworker, Theo has always been a passive victim. We meet him as a struggling 33-year-old in San Francisco, searching for sexual humiliation at the hands of his dominatrix girlfriend. When Theo can’t take the heat, he flies back to Chicago: the runaway child is a runaway adult. (And Elliott is as tied to Chicago as Joyce was to Dublin.) The book has substantial narrative problems. Ambellina is Theo’s third dominatrix, which makes for wasteful rehashing. It’s hard for a passive protagonist to stir interest. Significantly, the two most involving episodes show Theo taking charge: giving a 13-year-old burglar a lesson in beating the system; stalking and confronting his erstwhile rapist. The studiedly cool adult episodes in San Francisco and Amsterdam are the least successful, and we never get a handle on his marriage to the ill-defined Zahava. The prose, however, does provide some good goose bumps once we track back to Theo’s first apartment and his Mexican roommate Maria. These two 18-year-old rape victims are both looking for more pain: “You don’t hurt me enough,” complains Maria, Theo’s one true love, and it’s the story’s most bitter irony that more beatings might have kept them together. There seems no hope for Theo, but Maria finds peace and fulfillment as a single mother.
Grimly deterministic, but intermittently powerful.