Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children reads like a dream, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. The book has the same disjointed, “I don’t know what this means, but it sure is interesting” quality as some dreams or, in many of the book’s sequences, nightmares.
While reading it, I sometimes wondered what drugs I’d accidentally taken, and where I might obtain some more. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever wanted to read again almost immediately, certain that I had missed crucial points among the overflowing buffet of vignettes served up by Bock.
It certainly doesn’t read like a first novel, but then again the author has said he spent 10 years writing it, so one suspects it’s a first novel that’s been through innumerable revisions.
The plot centers loosely on the Ewing family: 12-year-old son Newell, who has disappeared into the neon-tinted Las Vegas night, whether as victim or runaway, it’s unclear; father Lincoln, whose alienation and despair send him seeking comfort anywhere he can find it, with unsavory results; and mother Lorraine, a former stripper who elevates her vanished son to saintly status, rendering everyone else in her life unworthy of her attention.
Lorraine, driven by a mother’s keening desperation, is one of the more sympathetic figures, especially as her son remains missing and interest fades: “The parents of her son’s friends and classmates had their root canals, their bake sales, their family therapy sessions. Contacting them meant little more than coming face-to-face with the fact that her need to find her son had nothing to do with anyone else’s life, a lesson that hurt no matter how many times she learned it.”
Other characters, beautifully drawn, flit around the Ewings like fireflies, lighting up for a few pages, then flying off into the dark, not to be heard from again for many chapters, if at all. Their common thread is a sense of thrumming anxiety that never abates; if you’re not already a little on edge, Beautiful Children will definitely put you there.
The lives of the city’s runaways are etched with horrific immediacy. A pregnant waif named Daphney, who at one time delighted in seeing her face on a milk carton, learns the real meaning of transience the hard way. “I went to the stores,” she says, “but the cartons had all different kids. ... I couldn’t find me no more.”
The true star of Beautiful Children, though, is Bock’s hometown of Las Vegas, a place where it’s never really dark or quiet. “Waves of electricity, emanating from pop art facades, actually transforming the nature of the atmosphere, creating a mutation of night, a night that is not night—daytime at night,” he writes. “The twenty-four-hour bacchanal. The party without limits. The crown jewel of a country that has institutionalized indulgence.”
The author mostly steers clear of the Strip and other cleaned-up tourist areas, focusing instead on the seedy, abhorrently foul underbelly whose denizens keep the likes of the Mandalay and Bellagio running.
If you haven’t already lost your soul by the time you arrive in Vegas, Bock intimates, just give it a day or so.
Beautiful Children will undoubtedly disgust some readers (profanity and nastiness abound, tempered with wry humor), intrigue or infuriate others. It’ll never be on the Las Vegas tourism board’s list of recommended titles.
For those willing to wade into its slimy abyss, however, it will reward them with a wildly satisfying and disturbing literary journey, led by an author of blazing talent.