Beautiful Children

By Charles Bock

The beautiful children of Charles Bock’s novel are lost children. The story revolves around the disappearance of twelve-year-old Newell Ewing, and proceeds along two tracks. The first leads up to the mysterious event by following an odd assortment of characters on the fateful day of Newell’s vanishing. In a manner that owes a lot to recent trends in film narrative the lives of unrelated individuals are shown intersecting in ways that provide different perspectives on what happens. The cast here includes a young-old comic book artist, a surgically enhanced stripper and her manipulative boyfriend, a punk girl, and Newell’s mixed-up best friend. The second storyline has Newell’s parents trying to cope with the fallout from his disappearance, moving away from the moment in time that the first builds up to. Which makes for an interesting and generally well-handled parallel structure, building suspense as the two threads diverge and converge at the same time.

The setting is Bock’s hometown of Las Vegas, a place which in these pages lives up to its reputation as a city hooked on money and sex. In other words, a very sleazy place from top to bottom. And Bock is mostly interested in the bottom. He documents life on the streets with an eye for squalid detail. His gangs of homeless, drugged-up street kids and low-life bottom-dwellers in the skin business seem like characters derived from the shock-noir fiction of Irvine Welsh. But Bock’s book, for all of its grit and nastiness, also carries a social message. It tries to honestly address the issue of missing children, dramatizing the plight of both the runaways and their struggle to survive on the streets as well as that of the parents left trying to cope and understand.

Beautiful Children is a first novel and is definitely rough around the edges. While not overwritten in a forced, mannered way, it could have used a little pruning. There are stretches where it feels like every other sentence could have been left out. But it doesn’t lack for energy, and the special feel all writing inspired by a particular place has. Bock’s Las Vegas, from the strip bars to the strip malls, is dense and glowing with life. Even briefly drawn characters who seem at first glance to be mere grotesques – a flabby convenience store clerk, the woman who runs a pawn shop – take on an added depth with only a few well-turned lines of dialogue. And interest is nicely sustained throughout, waiting until the final page to reveal the terrible climax of hopelessness and loss.

Review first published April 19, 2008.

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