Each moment, our lives continue – or are changed forever. A stack
of static images flicker in our memory, any one of which may come to
mean nothing, or everything. It all seems so random as it happens to
us in the moment. We meet, chat, work, sleep, a regular schedule that
splinters under close inspection. And when we look back at how we came
to this new moment, the connections we make won’t be chronological.
They won’t be based on a master plan. We'll choose images from
the stack based on our emotions at that moment; in another moment, we
might look at the same stack and choose different images. There are so
many editions of you to choose from, it's hard to know how to read them
and what order to read them in. It’s best to admit that your emotions
will make the choices. They may not be the best you could make. You may
not put together a particularly flattering picture of yourself or your
But it will be your picture, your life. Your choice.
The first image in Charles Bock's first novel 'Beautiful Children' is
of Newell Ewing. He's a slightly out-of-place twelve year-old boy at
a birthday party – not one of the in-crowd. His goofy smile, his
flame-red hair stand out in a snippet of video. It's the last, best
picture of a missing child. As Bock's novel unfolds, as the images stack
up and the reader begins to connect them, there's a clear timeline, even
if the images unfold out of order, according to an intangible but affecting
agenda. Putting together the story of 'Beautiful Children' is an emotional
experience for the reader, sometimes wrenching, often hilarious, frequently
frightening in implication as well as with regards to the events it portrays.
If you ever wondered what precisely Hell might look like when you arrived
there in a hurtling handbasket, this would be a good place to start – because
you sure as Hell would not want to end up here.
'Beautiful Children' covers a narrow swathe of territory in such detail,
with such extreme vividness, readers are going to think they've seen
the whole world until the covers are closed and their own lives begin
to seep back into their minds. Bock's a powerful visual stylist, and
his first novel is a perfect example of why reading and the novel have
a power and impact that other artistic mediums cannot reach. First and
foremost, you're going to notice his prose, in the same manner you’d
notice the barrel of a gun a split second before the bullet penetrates
your forehead. As to whether or not you're going to enjoy this particular
headshot, well that's for each reader to determine. Bock stakes out Middle
America at its gaudiest and most shallow, only to find profound depths.
'Beautiful Children' is a torrent of language that, should you care to
be swept away down into the sewer-depths of the sex business and the
world of teenage runaways, will indeed grab your attention – then
reward that attention with one emotional wallop after another. Some pages
purr, some scream. Bock's smart enough to modulate his tone. This isn't
one long scream. It's a carefully architected hard-rock symphony, Glen
Branca and Axl Rose transfigured into prose.
The ten main characters in 'Beautiful Children' cover a pretty wide series
of social strata. At the bottom of the barrel are the runaways; a teenaged
boy who calls himself Lestat, after the Anne Rice vampire icon, Danger-prone
Daphne, and Girl With Shaved Head. Turn the barrel over and look underneath,
and you'll find Ponyboy, a Mohawk-sporting young man who manages to get
himself and his stripper girlfriend, Cherie, into the pornography business.
Lincoln and Lorraine are Newell's parents, good people, but not the type
you’d call "deep" if you met them at a party. As characters
however, they're powerfully depicted, and their reactions to their son's
disappearance are a potent through-line for the reader. Newell may be
missing at the onset of the novel, but he's not absent from the novel
itself. But as he and his sixteen-year old friend Kenney cruise through
the microwave-melted mélange of suburb and strip malls that is
Vegas beyond the strip, readers will realize for a moment that they're
seeing life through the windows of that handbasket hurtling towards Hell.
Kenney is an artist, and he takes Newell to meet comic book artist Bing
Biederbixxe, a nebbish nerd who spends time in online chat rooms with
fellow comic book artists and aficionados. Beyond these are many memorable
ancillary characters; who can resist a hulking blob porno producer called
Jabba the Hut? Bock has a ball with every character he creates, and his
love of everyone, from the best and the, well not brightest (Lincoln
and Lorraine) to the lowest of the low makes everyone you meet someone
Bock unpacks these characters in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards
that turn the frustratingly uneventful – but all too typical – disappearance
of Newell into a tense, page-turning, emotionally churning experience.
For a novel that has a huge cast, and big themes, 'Beautiful Children'
is pleasingly short; it may bob and weave through its narrative but it
never meanders. Bock's cast of characters are All-Americans, the faceless
masses of the middle and lower-middle classes brought to life in the
strip-light, strip-mall, sex-club scum-burban world that sprawls from
the core of glitzy Vegas. It's not difficult to view 'Beautiful Children'
as a highly pixilated crime novel, picked apart and re-shuffled by a
Tarot fortuneteller moonlighting as a card sharp. Tellingly, there are
no cops and there is no law. There are simply human lives, lived day-to-day,
disintegrating at the turn of the twenty-first century. This is our world.
Please step into the handbasket; there is no safety belt. Have a fun
ride; I'll meet you at the bottom of the barrel.