Charles Bock, Beautiful Children

Publisher: Random House
2008, 407 pages, paperback, $14

if you take John O’Brien’s novel Leaving Las Vegas, throw in a healthy dose of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and top with the contemporary twist of the post-9/11 American psyche, you’ll likely find yourself imbibing Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children.

Set in Las Vegas and the surrounding arid wilderness, Bock’s debut novel weighs in at over 400 pages. Although a lengthy venture, Bock’s detailed attention to character and setting allows readers not only to gain a deeper appreciation for the city and surrounding high desert but to witness how each of the eight main characters’ poor decisions over the course of the novel pan out. Nurse this novel slowly to savor the searing images of Vegas’s faltering glitz, an iconic mid-century metropolis that emerges from the 21st century desert like a hallucinogenic dream, or as many of the characters depicted in this novel might suggest, like a nightmare from which one can never awake.

Beautiful Children’s present action opens during the relentless heat of a Las Vegas summer when a surly twelve year old boy, Newell, convinces his parents to allow him to spend the evening with his friend, Kenny, a pimpled teen whose jalopy, the FBI Mobile, serves as the literal and metaphorical vehicle for their last night as friends. Before the night ends, Newell is missing, and his disappearance haunts the remainder of the novel, during which we meet the grieving parents, an exotic dancer who imagines her life in screenplay format, her meth head porn peddling boyfriend, a shaved head teenage witch, a comic book artist, and several street urchins.

Bock creates suspense by implicating each of these characters in the young boy’s disappearance, and their seemingly disparate narratives intertwine with more frequency as the novel reaches its final climax. Bock’s project is an impressive undertaking, one likened to the rare, whirlwind quality of Charles Dickens’s serial novels where similarly unrelated characters impinge upon one another’s narratives and ultimately play a role in understanding the primary plot, which, in Beautiful Children‘s case, is whether a boy who goes missing at the opening of the story is found by the novel’s close.

Having lived in Nevada’s high desert for three and a half years, I have weathered the psychological and physical landscape that Bock paints in Beautiful Children. Like some of the characters in the novel, I was caught in dust storms kicked up when late afternoon zephyrs slid over the craggy mountains unexpectedly. Despite every effort to protect myself, whirling particulate still scraped at my eyes and shuddered over my face, leaving my throat parched and lips chapped so badly the skin carries permanent scars. Yet, amidst that harsh environment I also experienced some of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life, moments made more beautiful, perhaps, for the difficulty I encountered along the way. While living in Reno, I traveled to Las Vegas several times, and though I prefer northern Nevada to Vegas’s urban sprawl, I commend Bock for depicting such a mythologized city with honesty. He doesn’t romanticize or demonize the city and its inhabitants. Rather, he deftly creates characters whose humanity is always evident, especially in the moments when characters must decide between self-preservation and preserving the humanity in others. As a young writer, I hope I might unearth such authenticity within my own fiction.

-Gwynne Middleton