Jonathan Briggs's Reviews > A Good and Happy Child

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
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Apr 16, 2012

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George Davies can't bring himself to hold his newborn child. He can barely force himself to touch the little tyke. Well, of course, that makes sense: Babies are a mess, always covered in snot and drool and puke and stuff that's even more disgusting. Who'd wanna touch that? But George thinks he has a problem, so he takes it to a therapist. In the process, he begins "remembering rotten things" from his own unhappy childhood...

Young George is overweight, unpopular, smarter than his (non)peers, picked on by bullies. And he's recently lost his father. Paul Davies, an academic fallen out of favor with his university colleagues for taking theology and demonology too literally, went to Honduras to further his metaphysical studies and came back with a fatal case of jaundice. Shortly after Paul's death, George begins getting visitations. His "Friend," the apparition of a boy, comes to George regularly, bringing him visions and insinuations about how his father REALLY died. For George, these visitations are accompanied by trauma that escalates from sleeplessness to sickness to physical injuries. During blackouts, he speaks in different voices and commits acts of criminal mischief beyond the capabilities of a pudgy 11-year-old. George's mother, a feminist, intellectual counter to Paul's religious mysticism, puts George on a rigorous regimen of therapy and thorazine. Paul's friends suspect George's problems may be of a more spiritual nature.

Of course, any novel on demonic possession is going to labor under the deep, dark shadow of William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist." There's even a winking nod to projectile vomiting (Watch for it!). "Happy Child" takes on the perspective of the "possessed," rather than the priests, but it won't make anybody forget Blatty's blueprint. It doesn't add much beyond more up-to-date psychiatric jibbajabba and a slightly more Protestant slant. The author bio says Justin Evans is a "strategy and business development executive in New York City," and well ... that kinda shows. The book takes place in Virginia, but there's an awkward artificiality to the Southern cadences. Evans regularly rewrites snippets of dialog phonetically to remind readers that characters are talking with a twang. This isn't a book where you stop to admire a particularly artful description or creative phrase. The writing is purely functional (though it does function).

For whatever reason, seemingly genre books of this sort occasionally garner favor from mainstream critics and are elevated to the status of "literary thriller." I'll leave it to the experts to determine whether "A Good and Happy Child" is respectable or not. As horror, it's intermittently effective -- there are Halloween chills to be had -- but ultimately, it sabotages itself through its own pretensions and pandering to the mainstream. Here is a "Child" that never reaches its full potential, never developing beyond a half-baked, mushy mix of "Ordinary People" and any of the cruddy movies M. Night Shammalamma made after "The Sixth Sense."
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