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Beautiful Children: A Novel Paperback – January 13, 2009
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The Valley (The Valley Trilogy)
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Top Customer Reviews
Reading this book brought to mind a number of titles that do similar things much better. Those looking for a much stronger nerd character ala Bix should read Junot Diaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which an irresistible character is conjured with a lot of verve and warmth. For a multi-layered, multi-character exploration of a dissolute city, I'd highly recommend Bruce Wagner's I'm Losing You, which tempers pathos with a dark humor and also a sense of compassion, and has a lot more depth than this novel. On that note, also Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion--you get the layers and points of view in the context of characters who are so real that it hurts.
Bock's story follows two alternating timelines, predominantly in an uncertain present with an undefined future as backdrop. In the novel's present, a single night marked by chapter headings showing the evening's passage of time, a hyperactive, disaffected, and distinctly unlikable twelve-year-old named Newell Ewing cavorts through Las Vegas in the company of a bizarrely codependent older boy named Kenny, an insecure, aspiring comic book artist. As Newell and Kenny wind their way from a casino floor to a 7-Eleven convenience store and ultimately toward a desert night punk rock concert, their story is sandwiched by the same evening's travails of several parallel lives - a young hustler named Ponyboy, his artificially enhanced stripper girlfriend Cheri Blossom, a runaway named Lestat and his drugged out pregnant traveling companion, Danger-Prone Daphney, a shaven-headed teenage runaway girl, and an older, moderately successful comic book artist improbably named Bing Beiderbixxe.
The author sets these disparate stories against a second time frame, three or four months in the future, focused on Newell's parents, Lincoln (an event salesman for one of the Vegas casinos) and Lorraine. In that near future, Newell is a missing child who disappeared on the night of that desert concert and has not been seen since. Bock examines the couple's deteriorating marital relationship and their conflicting ways of coping with Newell's unresolved disappearance - Lincoln through rational hope and immersion in his work, Lorraine through watching old video tapes of her son when she's not saving abandoned cats and taking on other lost causes.
Slowly but steadily, Bock leads his "beautiful children" toward their climactic convergence at the desert concert, where the facts of Newell's disappearance will presumably become clear and the knowledge denied to Lincoln and Lorraine will be bestowed upon the patient reader. It would be too much of a spoiler to describe how the author handles this reveal. Suffice to say, the resolution is wholly consistent with the rest of the story and the characters' troubled lives.
Bock's hometown of Las Vegas becomes, for him, the shining city on the hill, the irresistible magnet drawing toward it the runaways and other adolescent refuse of American society. His portrayal of these young people is blunt and, at times, disturbingly graphic. Yet he avoids moralizing about emotionally absent parents, uncaring schools, or a corrupting consumerist culture. Instead, he paints a tragic picture of what is without asking why. Are his characters overblown, little more than caricatures of street life for runaways? Probably not, more likely a compendium of types and instances brought together in a single place. Through it all, however, the movie in Cheri's head finally offers the author's own view, spoken in a wimpled nun's soothing voice:
"My children, you are human for your sins and God loves you for your humanity. It is your sins that make you beautiful. But this does not necessarily give us license to do whatever we wish. And here I want you to listen carefully. What I am about to say is very important." Regrettably for Cheri and the rest, that's where her imagined screenplay ends.
Bock made me dizzy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy multiple points of view and don't mind moments of confusion, but Bock drained me. One page of text in particular jumped into the heads of no less than four characters. It wasn't difficult to follow, but left me disconnected with everyone involved.
The one true sparkle of the novel was Bock's ability to describe the pain and aimlessness of Newell's parents. He got me there, reached me. For that, I believe Bock can deliver the goods with a different story.
I also thought his use of punctuation and sentence structure was puzzling. I realize it's his art and he deserves the freedom to flow without the restraints of accepted style. It didn't bother me, but if that sort of thing bugs you, don't read this book.
In the end, nothing really happened. The characters were interesting, but they didn't do anything. If he had condensed his 432 pages into 150 and then followed with story of interaction and consequence, Bock would have a winner.
This is a very difficult book to get though and connect with. There are some great scenes but it never really comes together. There are many characters and plot lines (too many really) and the story of the central character, Newell, a missing 12 year-old, isn't enough to hold it together. It feels like the author over reached and tried to do too much. The result is some great scenes but an overall concoction that's not quite right.