Friday, 28 November 2008

Beautiful Children - Charles Bock

It is a normal Saturday evening in the Ewing household as hyperactive, comic book obsessed, twelve year old Newell pesters his parents to let him go out. When they acquiesce, Newell is thrilled. His first night out, and he determined to make the most of it.
But he never comes home.

In the aftermath his mother, Lorraine, becomes obsessed with watching a family video of her son eating pizza, punishing herself endlessly, unable to function. Emotionally withdrawn she blames her husband, Lincoln, for Newell’s disappearance. After all, it was he who persuaded her to let Newell go out that night. Lincoln, on the other hand, finds himself unable to help, desperately in need of closeness and contact, just getting by, but barely.

“And when that soulless stare had been reproduced hundreds of times; when thousands of Xeroxes had been made off hundreds of copies, most of them done on machines perpetually low on toner; when another copy of a copied copy had created further blurring, new smudges; after all this, Lincoln Ewing would be left to wonder. What was left of his son? What did he have?”

As the Ewing’s pick through every second of that fateful night, the lives of other, disparate characters, intertwine in a mystery which shows no sign of ever being solved.

Beautiful Children is Charles Bock’s debut novel, a grand sweep of life on the other side of Las Vegas. Behind the neon lights and vast marble lobbies of the grand casinos lies a city living on the back of the tourist money: the strippers, the casino workers, the invisible runaways who will never be found. We meet a dancer who sacrifices bodily comfort for career progression; a comic book illustrator with a crazy idea for the future of tattoos, an anarchistic teenager, a gang of runaway misfits. There is nothing romantic or pretty about these lives, theirs is a seedy, forgotten world fed by its own pain and suffering.

The advance praise has heralded Beautiful Children as a fast, powerful, epic novel in the best traditions of gritty American fiction like A.M. Homes and Don Delillo. And it is. But it is the gentle, subtle side that most struck me. Through careful narrative control Charles Bock places the reader in the position of his parents, unsure what has happened, reading on to discover yet with a sense that nothing will ever be known, searching desperately, frantically for some hint, anything to know he is alright. But instead, we are treated to snapshot views of other children who have run away, any of whose stories could be mirrors of Newell’s. It is Charles Bock’s narrative confidence to leave the reader with such an emotionally unfulfilling ending which makes this book so good.

Beautiful Children is well written, with points of truly exceptional prose. But there are also passages which drag, which get lost in what sometimes feels like irrelevance. The vast array of characters pass through the plot randomly, coming and going without any sense of story arch. This is, of course, their whole point, but it makes them difficult to know, to empathise with, to enjoy reading about. Only Newell’s parents elicit any emotional reaction from the reader, as they each pull in their own separate ways to deal with the pain and failure they feel. Lincoln is particularly well drawn, superbly understood and realised, honest but flawed, a complete mindset of a man no longer sure what his marriage is, desperate for something more, some emotional and physical intimacy to get him through the days. And guilty, always guilty, for his failings as a husband and a father.

Beautiful Children may herald the beginning of a fresh, exciting and intelligent new author. His is a name to watch out for in the future. And in the mean time, you could do a whole lot worse than reading this vast, disquieting portrait of life on the flip side of society, at all the beautiful children running away from themselves, seeking refuge in the glitzy nightmare of Las Vegas.

7 out of 10

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