Beautiful Children by Charles Bock
By turns harrowing, profane, pornographic, and tragic, Beautiful Children is not for the faint of heart. But, as a book about the darkest corners of Las Vegas, populated by a cast of disaffected and irreparably damaged urban nomads, how could it be anything else?
At the book's center is the disappearance of 12-year-old Newell Ewing, and the dissolution of his parents' marriage as they struggle to come to terms with their loss. The book's narrative jumps around in time, gradually revealing the events of what may be Newell's last night, as well as the aftermath of his disappearance.
Pieced in as well are other characters' stories: a stripper named Cheri Blossom, her wounded and sinister boyfriend, Ponyboy, and a host of teenage runaways living on the streets of Vegas, including, most memorably, Lestat, a gaunt and delicate boy who has taken a pregnant runaway under his wing.
Gradually, the shadowy social network that holds these characters together becomes evident. The porno book store where Newell's father buys videos receives its deliveries from the former teen hustler turned porn courier, who goes home to sponge off of his stripper girlfriend. She goes to work, and performs a lap dance for the overweight, unloved comic book artist, who earlier that day, signed books and chatted with Newell and his gawky, older friend, Kenny.
We are all connected, however uncomfortable those connections may be.
Whatever their demons, Cheri, Ponyboy, and the Ewings all exercise some control over their place in the world. The runaways don't, and when Bock turns to them the book is at its most heart-breaking. In scenes that might turn exploitative and voyeuristic in another writer's hands, Bock unfolds the day-to-day survival of these street kids, and the things that keep them trapped there, with great empathy.
Also well-handled is Bock's portrayal of Kenny, a sexually confused teenage boy who clings to the edges of the visible world. An aunt who takes him in, artistic talent, his friendship with Newell are the only things keeping him from joining the ranks of the lost children, yet he doesn't fit anywhere else either. In the scenes describing his night out on the town with Newell, he's at once an outcast, a goony, unwanted mentor, a predator, a chum, but always on the verge of breaking into pieces. Bock allows him to hold together, and fall apart, in a way that's frustratingly open-ended, but also feels very real.
The book suffers some from its dizzying narrative structure, and more from rambling interior monologues and occasional prose freak-outs that tend to take the reader away from the plight of Bock's characters. However, it's these characters that ultimately bring the book back to earth -- each one is a fully realized masterpiece, and their stories and personal horrors make Beautiful Children a staggering and unforgettable work.