Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: "Beautiful Children" by Charles Bock

Reading Charles Bock’s debut novel, Beautiful Children, is a beguiling, intoxicating experience that paints a unique portrait of modern Las Vegas as well as a brutal heartbreaking view of the life of under aged runaways. It’s never exploitative in what it presents, even if some of the characters are, and it is always interesting, utilizing its whirlwind narrative and many different viewpoints that keep a lot of the characters’ true intentions in the dark, but still leave the audience guessing. It falls into that category of neo-thriller that is both literary and propulsive. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of authors such as Dan Chaon and Kelly Braffett, who have a similar style of storytelling, shifting between time frames and perspectives to give the reader a strong sense of dread and intrigue while still keeping the heart of the story intact. What sets Bock apart from a Chaon or Braffett is his willingness to leave the reading audience in the dark for much longer than they might be comfortable with. With someone like Chaon, in particular his two fantastic novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, Chaon slowly reveals himself by the end, and we are left with a magnificent tapestry of a story we didn’t know until then even existed. This book is not so neat. There are connections but they are fleeting, most of the time painfully so, and by the end we aren’t left with something neat, but something a rather bit painful but very true. The novel focuses on the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy living in Las Vegas called Newell Ewing. He went out one night, determined to undermine his parents, and never came back. As I said, the story shifts timelines quite often, showing the Newel’s parents, Lorraine and Lincoln, a former Vegas showgirl and pro baseball prospect receptively, rocked by the disappearance and the mystery of it all months afterward, retreating into their own private vices, Lincoln’s being porn, which leads to one of the novel’s most brilliant shifts in perspective, which I won’t reveal here. But the night itself, we follow Newell himself and Kenny, a shy older boy who dreams of being a comic book artist and represses some confusing sexual feelings, as well as Cheri, a stripper whose life of using and being used she dulls with cinematic fantasies, her boyfriend Ponyboy, a gutter punk who uses his offbeat charm to hurt and abuse those around him, especially Cheri, and somewhat successful comic book artist Bing Beiderbixxie, whose overcome many hurtles in life to make a name for himself, but still finds romantic love depressingly out of reach. There are others we meet on this nocturnal odyssey as well, like a couple of drifters who love for one another is waning, or never existed at all, and Ponyboy’s boss, cruel man whose a product of life on the edge and without love. All are connected in ways none would expect, and by the end, Newell’s disappearance, the circumstances of which remain a bit ambiguous, but very much appropriate, becomes a metaphor for these poor souls pain and infinite sense of loss. It was a true pleasure to exist in this fictional world, because for all its despair, it’s a truthful and beautiful story, much as the title suggests.

Rating: 5/5

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