Beautiful Children
by Charles Bock
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Las Vegas didn’t earn its reputation as “Sin City” on its own. It
took the concerted efforts of millions of tourists, who flocked there
for various indulgences, to secure this distinction for the city. But
Charles Bock, in his debut novel
Beautiful Children, looks at the
homegrown vices in the city where he was born - and they can
match anything the visitors could hope to muster.

Don't expect to find many examples of clean, wholesome living in
this book. Bock’s Las Vegas is populated by strippers and druggies,
juvenile delinquents and adult bookstore proprietors, scammers and brawlers –
and, yes, a few gamblers. After all, this
is Las Vegas. But the largest group
represented here are runaways. “Really, when you look at it,” one of them
comments midway through the novel, "Vegas is a good place to run to.”

The central character in
Beautiful Children, Newell Ewing, is a missing twelve year-
old, possibly a runaway. But he too is homegrown, not running to Las Vegas, but
away from it. Or so his parents, Lincoln and Lorraine Ewing, hope. The alternatives
are simply too painful to contemplate – their son dead or kidnapped or otherwise
victimized. But they don’t know why he would run, and can only guess where.

You can tell the novelist sympathizes with the plight of his characters. He even
includes an appendix with information on resources and organizations for
runaways and their loved ones. But he does not make his characters too
sympathetic. Newell is as much a victimizer as a victim, and almost every character
in the book is angry or deluded or manipulative or just plain nasty.

And they look the part. The folks who strut on the stage in Beautiful Children are
mostly pierced and tattooed, or maimed and limping, or suffering from lice or some
nutritional deficiency. Tattoos, in particular, play an important part in the plot; a get-
rich scheme involving 3-D tattoos bounces around from character to character.
What a great way to make some bucks! But it turns out to be easier to make
money in adult entertainment, or just robbing a person or a convenience store. If
there is a tawdrier bunch of folks in Las Vegas, I don’t want to meet them.

This book could have collapsed into a series of vacuous interludes. But Bock raises
it to a higher level through the intricate structure of his narrative, which keeps
turning in on itself. Most of the action takes place during the course of a single day,
but Bock constantly flashes forward and backward in one of the most brilliant
manipulations of chronology that I have encountered in recent fiction. Every few
pages, the scene and time sequence make a radical shift. Yet Bock artfully balances
what he tells us in any given chapter with what he leaves unsaid. The overall effect
is powerful: the reader is pushed deeper and deeper into the story, yet constantly
left with questions unanswered, and key details yet to be revealed.

Above all, the prose has pizzazz. In fact, this book reads as if it were meant to be
spoken aloud. I am not a fan of audio books, but this one would probably make for
interesting listening on a long drive – on a road trip to Las Vegas, for example.
Then again, after a few hours of
Beautiful Children on the car sound system, you
might find you want to turn around before you get to the Nevada state line. This is
a story you would much rather read than experience first hand.  

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