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April 2, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | April 2, 2008 |

When I picture the great city of Las Vegas, I think decadence. I think neon. I think sequins, usually on or near feathers. And let’s not forget boobies. Big, fake, plastic boobies. It’s Vegas; what else is there? Sure, there are real people there, even non-synthetic people like you and me, but who thinks of them? They’re not what Vegas is all about.

Au contraire, says Charles Bock, whose debut novel features Vegas in a different light. Beautiful Children shows the reality of Vegas in its dirt and grime, not the shiny, glittering fa├žade that most people imagine. Bock gives us homelessness, addiction, and filth. He portrays lost and neglected children and the people who exploit them for a quick buck. Included are, of course, big, fake, plastic boobies, but these are boobies in pain. Boobies with depth.

The axis upon which this portrait of Vegas turns is one Newell Ewing, a missing 12-year-old. That he is missing we know from the opening chapter, but it takes another 400 pages before we find out why. In the meantime, we see Vegas in all its filthy, degenerate glory: strippers whose painful implants are the only way to make a decent living; hustlers who will do anything, and I mean anything, for money; runaways whose lives on the streets eating trash and consuming drugs are preferable to their previous incarnations as abused children; porn dealers whose dishonest methods trap innocent girls into becoming “stars.”

But Newell comes from none of this. Despite being a kid in the most depraved city in America, Newell is pretty well-adjusted. True, he’s a spoiled brat, but his parents are well-meaning. Lincoln and Lorraine do all they can for their son, and even if their marriage isn’t perfect, Newell doesn’t have much to complain about: he’s given everything a child could want. What more can parents do?

So when Newell disappears after an evening out with his slightly-older friend Kenny, it is natural that his parents blame themselves for letting him go. Then again, their son is getting older; they can’t keep him in the house forever. Worse, they don’t even know why he disappeared. Did he fall victim to one of the thousands of depraved individuals roaming the city? Or did he simply run away?

We follow Newell as he spends his last known night in the city at the same time as we follow an assortment of equally lost souls. We follow Cheri Blossom (she of the painful plastic boobies) and her loser boyfriend Ponyboy as he manipulates her yet again into making money for him. Then there’s Bing Beiderbixxe, the overweight comic-book illustrator (bearing in my mind an uncanny resemblance to Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons”) who spends most of his time in online chatrooms and drawing big-breasted characters. There’s also Lestat, a runaway who worships—you guessed it—Anne Rice, and his friend Daphne, a hugely-pregnant, drug-addicted teen who saves the milk cartons she’s featured on.

Clearly Bock has a talent for creating memorable characters, but he doesn’t stop there. He is able to move smoothly from plot to plot, from present to past. Only rarely does this movement become difficult to follow. Even better is his skill at using multiple voices and shifts in prose, relating with equal ease a chatroom exchange, an imaginary screenplay, and the twisting logic of a junkie.

But for all its strengths, Beautiful Children is not without its flaws. The multiple plots could converge at the end a bit more neatly, and a little editing would be helpful. A good quarter could be cut without losing the intensity or depth that characterize the rest of the novel. Also, some storylines seem unnecessary; for example, the one involving the comic-book artist adds little to the story and mostly only serves as a disruption. However, these are minor issues that hardly detract from the novel.

Bock proves that ultimately everyone is to blame for what happens to Newell. Simply put, our society is cold and unfeeling, each person only out for self-gain. There are only two choices in this world: hurt or be hurt in return. Charles Bock’s first novel is a joyride—the reader tears through glitter and neon and crashes on cold, hard reality. In this way, reading Beautiful Children is much like experiencing Sin City itself.

For more information about the novel and Charles Bock, check out the first episode of Titlepage.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Vegas: It's More than Just Boobies

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock / Jennifer McKeown

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