Without doubt, Charles Bock's BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN is a novel of extremes, and readers' reactions are likely to take that love/hate form as well. Some will find Bock's writing bluntly searing, his scarred adolescent characters sympathetic, his message of a lost generation tragic. Others will be repulsed by his wallowing in the social underbelly of America's national underbelly, Las Vegas, or they will reject his literary pyrotechnics as gratuituous, semi-pornographic, too-clever-by-half attention-seeking (a notion only too readily confirmed by his scruffy visage and too-punk-by-half-for-a-Bennington-College-MFA website). I found myself leaning with admiration more toward the former attitude than the latter, although I can see a multitude of reasons for some readers to reject this first novel and its subject matter out of hand.
Bock's story follows two alternating timelines, predominantly in an uncertain present with an undefined future as backdrop. In the novel's present, a single night marked by chapter headings showing the evening's passage of time, a hyperactive, disaffected, and distinctly unlikable twelve-year-old named Newell Ewing cavorts through Las Vegas in the company of a bizarrely codependent older boy named Kenny, an insecure, aspiring comic book artist. As Newell and Kenny wind their way from a casino floor to a 7-Eleven convenience store and ultimately toward a desert night punk rock concert, their story is sandwiched by the same evening's travails of several parallel lives - a young hustler named Ponyboy, his artificially enhanced stripper girlfriend Cheri Blossom, a runaway named Lestat and his drugged out pregnant traveling companion, Danger-Prone Daphney, a shaven-headed teenage runaway girl, and an older, moderately successful comic book artist improbably named Bing Beiderbixxe.
The author sets these disparate stories against a second time frame, three or four months in the future, focused on Newell's parents, Lincoln (an event salesman for one of the Vegas casinos) and Lorraine. In that near future, Newell is a missing child who disappeared on the night of that desert concert and has not been seen since. Bock examines the couple's deteriorating marital relationship and their conflicting ways of coping with Newell's unresolved disappearance - Lincoln through rational hope and immersion in his work, Lorraine through watching old video tapes of her son when she's not saving abandoned cats and taking on other lost causes.
Slowly but steadily, Bock leads his "beautiful children" toward their climactic convergence at the desert concert, where the facts of Newell's disappearance will presumably become clear and the knowledge denied to Lincoln and Lorraine will be bestowed upon the patient reader. It would be too much of a spoiler to describe how the author handles this reveal. Suffice to say, the resolution is wholly consistent with the rest of the story and the characters' troubled lives.
Bock's hometown of Las Vegas becomes, for him, the shining city on the hill, the irresistible magnet drawing toward it the runaways and other adolescent refuse of American society. His portrayal of these young people is blunt and, at times, disturbingly graphic. Yet he avoids moralizing about emotionally absent parents, uncaring schools, or a corrupting consumerist culture. Instead, he paints a tragic picture of what is without asking why. Are his characters overblown, little more than caricatures of street life for runaways? Probably not, more likely a compendium of types and instances brought together in a single place. Through it all, however, the movie in Cheri's head finally offers the author's own view, spoken in a wimpled nun's soothing voice:
"My children, you are human for your sins and God loves you for your humanity. It is your sins that make you beautiful. But this does not necessarily give us license to do whatever we wish. And here I want you to listen carefully. What I am about to say is very important." Regrettably for Cheri and the rest, that's where her imagined screenplay ends.