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Charles Bock
Beautiful Children
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2008

Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4000-6650-6
421 Pages; $25
Publication Date: 01-29-2008
Date Reviewed: 02-08-2008

Index: General Fiction,  Mystery

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 life. 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 you remember.

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.

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