Beautiful Childrenby Charles Bock Published 22 Jan 2008
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One Saturday night in Las Vegas, twelve-year-old Newell Ewing goes out with a friend and doesn't come home. In the aftermath of his disappearance, his mother, Lorraine, makes daily pilgrimages to her son's room and tortures herself with memories. Equally distraught, the boy's father, Lincoln, finds himself wanting to comfort his wife even as he yearns for solace, a loving touch, any kind of intimacy.
As the Ewings navigate the mystery of what's become of their son, the circumstances surrounding Newell's vanishing and other events on that same night reverberate through the lives of seemingly disconnected strangers: a comic book illustrator in town for a weekend of debauchery; a painfully shy and possibly disturbed young artist; a stripper who imagines moments from her life as if they were movie scenes; a bubbly teenage wiccan anarchist; a dangerous and scheming gutter punk; a band of misfit runaways. The people of Beautiful Children are urban nomads; each with a past to hide and a pain to nurture, every one of them searching for salvation and barreling toward destruction, weaving their way through a neon underworld of sex, drugs, and the spinning wheels of chance.
In this masterly debut novel, Charles Bock mixes incandescent prose with devious humor to capture Las Vegas with unprecedented scope and nuance and to provide a glimpse into a microcosm of modern America. Beautiful Children is an odyssey of heartache and redemption; heralding the arrival of a major new writer.
Advance praise for Beautiful Children
Charles Bock has delivered an anxious, angry, honest first novel filled with compassion and clarity. Beautiful Children is fast, violent, sexy;like a potentially dangerous ride;it could crash at any moment but never does. The language has a rhythm wholly its own;at moments it is stunning, near genius. This book is big and wild;it is as though Bock saved up everything for this moment. A major new talent.
A. M. Homes
Beautiful Children careens from the seedy to the beautiful, the domestic to the epic, all with huge and exacting heart.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Beautiful Children is the best first novel I've read in years;certainly the best first novel of our newborn century. Charles Bock has written a masterpiece: tragic, comic, sexy, chilling, far-reaching, and wise; at once an accusation and a consolation, and a lucid portrait of what is happening at the very heart of our culture, and what it means to be a young American today.
"Beautiful Children" Reviews
To get through a book where the "punk" characters say things like "cool beans" and "he's an Urkel" and "oh snap!"; where the strippers have hearts of gold and the former strippers grow up to be the best mothers; where the author unironically writes sentences like "the world was a pair of successfully removed breast implants"; and to still be engaged and even occasionally impressed by that book (when not prompted to delve into a long, exasperated rant about its many cliches) is a pretty big feat. Depending upon which chapter I was reading, I would either give this book three stars or one star, so I just split the difference - with the last star heavily aided by the last two pages.
It was by sheer force of will that I was able to finish this book. It's sad too because, like many here, I had high hopes for this much hyped debut. I don't believe that Bock's a lost cause by any means, but he's definitely got some refining to do before Random House or any other publisher so much as thinks about advancing him any more money. I primarily take issue with the unwieldy narrative, the disastrously underdeveloped characters, and Newell Ewing, the twelve year-old whose disappearance this novel revolves around. Simply put, I hate Newell and hope he is never found. The end.
This wasn't bad or anything, but it was fairly unsatisfying, overall. It's a loosely connected story of a handful of characters with pretty messy lives, all fucking up and being fucked up in Las Vegas. It's definitely not a Swingers type of Las Vegas; it's the grittier, grimier, non-touristy side, which I really liked reading about. And it's a good cross-section of people too: old and young, rich and homeless, stripper and real-estate agent, crust punks and comic geeks. But the plot? Eh. It's not a plot-driven book, which I can appreciate, but in the absence of a strong plot, the characters have to be worth traveling all the way through three hundred pages with. And that's this book's major downfall.
Although it's not what you'd think. Bock's characters are extremely detailed, but I think he tried a little too hard with them. You know how creative writing teachers will tell you to write down entire biographies for your characters, so you can get a better sense of who they are and what they would say and do? Well, it seems like Bock did that, but then instead of keeping that in a notebook by his computer as a reference, he just went ahead and crammed it all into the story. I mean, it's weird that I would complain that characters are too well drawn, but that's sort of what happens. We get these twenty-page digressions about one point in a character's history, or five pages on someone's motivations for getting a certain tattoo, or an entire chapter on someone's relationship with her mother.
And the worst part is that, for all this over-characterization, his characters manage somehow to still seem really unoriginal. We've got the stripper who lets her deadbeat boyfriend convince her to get breast implants. We've got the fat, balding, nerdy d-list comic book artist who spends all his time masturbating or in a private chatroom with his handful of loser friends. We've got the rebellious punk teenager (who BTW, despite being one of the primary characters in the book, is somehow never given a fucking name, and is always referred to, distractingly and cumbersomely, as "the girl with the shaved head").
All these characters, despite, as I said, having their minutia and backstories and motives and personalities exhaustively detailed and catalogued, are pretty damn cliché. Knowing all the ways in which the comic book guy was rejected in high school and college does not make him unique; it just makes him more typical, you know? So that was too bad. And even worse, actually, is that often the characters are still inconsistent! They say things that you know they wouldn't, in slang they're too old or too young for, or with vocabulary they wouldn't have. They act in incongruous ways. They spend time on things that don't really make sense for them to be paying attention to. They don't live up to who they've been drawn to be. So why did I waste so many pages getting to know who I thought they were?
Also the book was kind of jaggedly structured. The whole thing is leading up to one night when a twelve-year-old boy disappears, at a huge illegal punk show out in the desert. Over the three hundred pages, Bock maneuvers most of the various characters around so that they will all end up at this show together, but the timeline is not linear, so there's lots of stumbling around as you realize that this section must have happened months or years before the previous one, and trying to keep all the pieces together.
Also he leans way too hard on italics to do his work for him. In any given conversation, about a third of the things people say will be ital, and not like word by word, but their entire sentence or phrase. Which is hard to read and also causes the emphasis to lose its power.
I don't know what, exactly, I expected when I started this book, but it certainly wasn't a slow-moving, leaden story.
None of the characters in this book are likeable, and they are all so stiff, it's hard to sympathize with them at all. It doesn't help that the cast is so huge... new characters are being introduced almost up until the very end. The author seems to treat his protagonists flippantly, and he doesn't even bother to give one of the characters a name, calling her simply "The girl with the shaved head."
I found the book difficult to read, mostly because I just didn't care what was happening. The storylines are convoluted, jumping back and forth in time, but not in any coherent way.
You'd think it would be hard to find a story set in Las Vegas and featuring a big cast of punks, runaways and strippers boring. But Beautiful Children is boring and tired, and I'm so happy to be done with it!
If you have to work this hard to get through a novel, you'd hope there would be some payoff somewhere. But I'm just feeling disgusted that I forced myself to finish it. There are so many other, better, books I could have been reading!
I really wanted to like this book, which was favorably reviewed on the front page of the NYT Sunday Book Review. I didn't.
Nearly every character is grotesque and pathetic; it's hard to believe that human beings could be as clueless as these people are. Maybe one or two, but all of them? It's difficult to get involved in a story where the characters are despicable AND their actions make no sense. It doesn't help that nearly every character is obsessed with sex, and many with pornography. Give me a break.
What passes for a plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a pre-teen boy in Las Vegas. The author, himself a Las Vegas native, is obviously concerned with runaway children and the book contains numerous statistics and other information about this problem. Unfortunately, the boy's motivations are not credible, and based on his actions, it seems more appropriate that his parents should have given him away, or at least not have been so distraught when he disappeared. He's not nice, to say the least.
If I had read the author's acknowledgments first, I might have been warned away from reading the whole book. What can you say about an author who thanks his wife for her help by calling her "the best f***ing wife in the world"? (He didn't use asterisks.) Well, he went to Bennington, several writing camps, etc. Obviously he's trendy; maybe I'm just getting crusty.
I feel like a sucker for having bought this. It's not very good. For Christ's sake, there are puns! I can't remember the exact phrasing, but one part read something like:
"I was being figurative, she said. To which Ponyboy responded with his middle figurative."
And his use of parlance – and particularly the use of the word "like" – is terrible and often embarrassing. The prose is all playful and buoyant and alliterative, and seems to undermine the subject matter. It's like a crystal chandelier in a flophouse, if that makes any sense. Anyway, this book kind of sucked. Sorry.