The Dark Side of Vegas

Charles Bock's debut novel, "Beautiful Children"—the book of the moment—dazzles its readers on almost every page. Bock cooks up more characters and plots, and subplots, in a single chapter than most novelists manage in an entire book. Then he sets them spinning and colliding in the 1,000-watt setting of Las Vegas over the course of a single night. He probes the netherworlds of runaway children, casino middle management and pornographers with an eye so knowing and shrewd that you would swear he had lived in those worlds himself. He knows how to tug at your heart, and he knows how to make you laugh out loud, often on the same page, sometimes in the same sentence. The only thing he doesn't seem to know is when to quit.

The heart of "Beautiful Children" is the story of 12-year-old Newell Ewing, who goes out with a friend one night and never returns. His disappearance haunts his parents, puts their marriage up on blocks and devastates the friend he left with. It's an affecting story, but Bock makes it truly powerful in the way he tells it. He sets several narratives in motion at once, and then lets the reader sort out how they relate to each other. More than that, he slices and dices his timeline with no warning: the novel opens a year after Newell disappears, then flips back to the day of the disappearance, then forward, then back. Some of the narrative takes place well before the day of the disappearance, and a bit of it takes place well into the future. This is not, you come to realize, difficulty for its own sake. Jumbling time and emotion, Bock creates an effective objective correlative for how the characters in the book live with its events. In their wrecked minds, everything is now.

To his credit, Bock resists sentimentalizing his story, starting with Newell himself. He's a spoiled brat with almost no redeeming qualities. But Newell is not the hero, or even the protagonist. It's what happens to the people around him that interests Bock, who says straight out at one point, "What had happened to [Newell] was a Rorschach test that revealed the worst inclinations and fears of the person who considered the possibilities." Bock has a keen eye—for the nihilistic scuzz of teen street life, for the way a marriage comes undone, for the tawdry mores of Vegas (it helps that he's a native, but mostly it's talent). What he lacks is the discrimination to know when to stop, and his gifts all but get the best of him. The great scenes get lost amid scenes that are merely good, and a lot more that don't add a thing. There are times when you feel like screaming at the author to slow down, leave out a little more, don't tell me everyone's backstory, current situation and future prospects. There are two or three wonderful stories here, and they nearly get buried in the wordplay and endless invention in the book. Ambition and audacity are fine qualities in a writer, but they are chilly virtues. There is a wearying quality to this novel's brilliance that makes you want to holler uncle long before the 407-page tale reaches its end.

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