PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

Heather West

Bock's characters bob, weave and occasionally collide as they jackknife inexorably onwards towards an anti-climactic conclusion.

Beautiful Children

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9781400066506
Author: Charles Bock
Price: $25.00
Length: 422
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-01

The hotly anticipated Beautiful Children rode in on a wave of gushingly adoring reviews and myriad viral marketing campaigns. It sailed onto the New York Times' Bestseller List. In the mythology that serves as Beautiful Children's back-story, author Charles Bock was raised in a Las Vegas pawnshop, endured an unhappy childhood, and became exposed to the seedy underbelly of the city before leaving at age 18 for the greener pastures of Bennington College.

Inspired to set his debut novel in those familiar environs, he delves deep into the counterculture and sex-trade quagmire bubbling just beneath the smooth, gleaming surface. Weaving together story lines that include a missing child and his anguished parents, a young artist's confrontation with his sexuality, strippers, runaways, punks and street kids, he tells the story of a Saturday night tragedy and its aftermath.

The characters, missing Newell, hustler Ponyboy (is anyone ready for a character with this name again? It still reeks of S. E. Hinton), stripper Cheri, overgrown comic artist Bing and his counterpoint Kenny, as well as street dwellers Lestat and Daphney are ambitiously drawn, to a fault. It has been much reported that BC took Bock ten years to write, and he refers in interviews to 700-800 page drafts; if only he had spent five years and 250 pages giving readers a taut, empathic portrayal of the pain, isolation and numbness each character experiences.

Beautiful Children succeeds on some levels -- the prose crackles with energy, physical descriptions are crystalline, and a brittle, humiliating self-awareness shines like a beacon from even the most minor characters. However, sharp emotional responses elicited initially from the reader are soon dulled by each character’s endless investigations into their own tedious thoughts. A particularly long-winded section has Newell's long-suffering father (and actually one of the few sympathetic characters in the novel, but more on that later) peeing, removing his contacts and washing his hands, while parsing out ridiculously detail ruminations on his relationship with the icy Lorraine, a former showgirl who approaches life from the most tight-assed possible angle, then wonders where the love is.

In a book with more hard-to-like characters than neon lights, the missing child Newell is a true standout. Unbelievably irritating on almost every level, this reader found herself rooting against him from almost the first page, if that was Bock's intention; he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Flinging elbows, demanding money, attention, and anything else that catches his fancy, he represents the kind of nihilism that would more rightly be reserved for the much more overtly disgusting Ponyboy. They both reach blindly for tiny sparks of humanity, missing wildly, forcing them to make do with self-deception.

A great deal of attention is paid to the statistics behind missing and abused children, but when delving into the underworld dominated by punks, Goths, and assorted panhandling train-hoppers, Bock falters. Could it be that Ivy-League educated writers and editors (his editor is Brown University Alumnus David Ebershoff) don't have the first hand chops to really illuminate that world, beyond the tossed-off references between the kids to sexual abuse and incest?

The vernacular is close, but the false notes clank like cowbells on the ears of those who recognize them. Tattoos are referred to as "tatts" – instead of "tats". Punks are called punkers (which is not common usage in that world, only that of observers), zydeco music suddenly contains banjos. It should be noted that the sections of the book containing internet chat room threads between nerdy Bing and his friends rings true. Perhaps the conversation of the socially awkward middle class is a more comfortable fit for Bock than the world of the sidewalk tramp.

Bock has said in interviews that he takes encouragement from an idea he attributes to Don DeLillo: If the novel is dead, then the writer can "swing for the fences". Swing for the fences he did, and for that, I applaud him, this sort of bravery on a first novel is impressive. The plotting is strong and structured, and there is much to like about Beautiful Children, but ultimately we are left with a sense of emptiness. His characters bob, weave and occasionally collide as they jackknife inexorably onwards towards an anti-climactic conclusion: after 400 pages, is that all there is?


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.