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Beautiful Children: A Novel Hardcover – January 22, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
A wide-ranging portrait of an almost mythically depraved Las Vegas, this sweeping debut takes in everything from the bland misery of suburban Nevada to the exploitative Vegas sex industry. At the nexus of this Dickensian universe is Newell Ewing, a hyperactive 12-year-old boy with a comic-book obsession. One Saturday night, Newell disappears after going out with his socially awkward, considerably older friend. Orbiting around that central mystery are a web of sufferers: Newell's distraught parents, clinging onto a fraught but tender marriage; a growth-stunted comic book illustrator; a stripper who sacrifices bodily integrity for success; and a gang of street kids. Into their varying Vegas tableaux, Bock stuffs an overwhelming amount of evocative detail and brutally revealing dialogue (sometimes in the form of online chats). The story occasionally gets lost in amateur skin flicks, unmentionable body alterations and tattoos, and the greasy cruelty of adolescents, all of which are given unflinching and often deft closeups. The bleak, orgiastic final sequence, drawing together the disparate plot threads, feels contrived, but Bock's Vegas has hope, compassion and humor, and his set pieces are sharp and accomplished. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
This novel about Vegas has been the subject of considerable hype, including a full feature on Bock in the New York Times Magazine. Only a few reviewers found Bock’s debut Beautiful Children brilliant, but to elicit such a reaction, Bock needs the critical equivalent of a straight flush. He needs readers who are willing to accept pages and pages of explicit sexual description, an unorthodox narrative structure, unlikable characters, and an ending that may not satisfy the logic of the missing-person plot. For readers willing to accept all these, or for readers heavily invested in the book’s milieu, Beautiful Children will provide ample payoff. But many readers will find this crowded intersection of postmodern storytelling and postadolescent characters a mere full house.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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If other readers come away from this book feeling as if they've been privy to some unforgettable experiences but ultimately left feeling hollow, perhaps Bock has succeeded in conveying what Vegas is like from an local's perspective.
Vegas is one of those cities that I've always found equally fascinating and repulsive. I'd imagine that it would be difficult to feel like one is truly living a wholesome and meaningful life there considering the foundation the city is built upon. Not that it would be impossible, but it must be far from the norm, and I feel that Bock does a good job conveying this. Even the most stable of the brilliantly portrayed characters in the book live lives that are based on flash, hustle, and materialism. None of the characters are free from deeply troubling elements, which I'm sure are much more common when one considers the motives that lead people to move to such a city. I suppose in the end, the book only confirmed the suspicions I already had after visiting the city a dozen or so times under a number of pretenses.
It's a bit difficult to assign a star rating to this one, so I'm mainly basing it on how engaged I was the entire time. Unlike other reviewers, I was always drawn to the text and eager to continue reading up to the last page. I found the mystery component behind the disappearance of Newell to be secondary to all the other stories told, but a strong element of suspense that ultimately disappointed. Much like driving away from a weekend in Vegas, this book did not leave me feeling more optimistic, but it was a wild ride that I won't forget.
Bock is a skilled wordsmith, but too much so. People with the kind of grasp of language that he has sometimes don't know when enough is too much, sort of like that friend we all have who is an amazing singer, but who annoys everyone to death by singing all the time and at the drop of a hat. Because this book is more a series of character studies than anything else, there are lots and lots of passages that are nothing but protracted narratorial monologues. Bock's goal here is lofty, and he believes that loftly language is necessary to accomplish it.
Unfortunately, where the book succeeds the most is when Bock decides to stop telling and instead just shows. Kids misbehaving, parents arguing, losers and rejects claiming curb space, these moments are the book's poignant heart. They do much more to illustrate life's buffet of painful precedents than the protracted moments where Bock goes lapses into exhaustive pop psychology, describing character motivations and histories with such detail that they become dull and numbing.
In the acknowledgments, Charles Bock mentions that "This novel took a long time to write." He also thanks someone for "shooting me full of all those drugs" and he is grateful to "Certain people in the world of adult entertainment ... kind enough to take me ... onto their sets." I mention this because I think it's indicative of where Bock got it wrong, and where he could've gotten it right. Bock was attempting an hardcore realism, hence the extensive (and maybe unnecessary -- he shot himself full of drugs?) research. However, the best writers take that research and let it form the ambient backdrop of their own minds, using that knowledge to form honest and true characters and events. Instead of using what he learned to coax life into his book, Bock apparently just took everything he learned and dumped it en masse onto the pages. Hence the long, cheesy passages about what it's like to snort heroin (I assume it was heroin). Hence the completely unnecessary diatribes about pornography. Hence so much telling.
Gut the novel of the encyclopedic research and leave behind the beautiful children (and adults) which it is about, and you'd have a real character study, a sharp and clarifying expose of why life sometimes regresses into abandonment embraced. Instead, you have an overfed beast of a book that is so gorged on exposition and detail that it lumbers through every chapter at a torturous pace. The people in this book are all running, which is why it is so unfortunate that the book itself merely crawls.