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?