Book Review: Readings

Charles Bock

Readings

Beautiful Children: A Novel

by Charles Bock
Random House, 432 pp., $25

The decline of the great American experiment is written in the neon lights and decaying storefronts of Las Vegas in Charles Bock's remarkable debut novel. Drawing on his experiences growing up the son of pawnbrokers in that money-mad city, Brock paints a frantic, black-comic portrait of life on the fringes of the American economy, where busted dreams, sexual desperation, cultural vacancy, and familial disconnection conspire to suck all the life out of human beings and pound them into isolated slabs of sour memory and disillusionment.

At the center of Bock's story resides Newell Ewing, a 12-year-old boy looking for adventure outside the confines of his suburban upbringing. His disappearance one night sets off a sequence of events that threatens to ruin the lives of a whole ecosystem of seemingly unrelated characters. There are Newell's parents, Lorraine and Lincoln, whose already troubled marriage threatens to collapse under the strain; Kenny, a disenchanted loner with artistic/pornographic aspirations; Bing Beiderbixxe, a barely successful comic-book artist who spends his time in strip clubs and Internet chat rooms; and stripper Cheri Blossom, who reimagines her past through the lens of a movie camera as a way to mythologize her wasted present. And then there's a wandering band of runaway teenage misfits.

Beautiful Children is a great American epic in the Thomas Pynchon mold, where comedy and tragedy mix fast and loose and the detritus of American popular culture (lovingly and painstakingly described) is elevated to high metaphor. Little escapes Bock's discerning eye, from the megalomaniacal joys of teenage liberation to the pervasive melancholy of modern-day Nevada, from the psychological despair of a suddenly childless mother to the sociological choreography of a lap dance. Long gone are the days when novelists devoted all their energy to the big ideas and left the petty relics of the popular imagination off to the side. In an age like ours and in a world like Las Vegas – that one "place on the planet that instantly offered the chance to reverse fortune and end losing streaks, the chance to set right a lifetime of disappointments" – the noble and the depraved are equal indicators of the national and literary mood.

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