three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
By: 
Charles Bock
user_rating: 
0

A-Beautiful ChildrenIn 21st-century America, it’s not uncommon for the story of a missing child to dominate the television for days, inviting comment from anchors and commentators, pundits and wonks, celebrities and sleazebags. In this novel, Charles Bock uses the missing-child device to do something similar to that most 21st-century of cities, Las Vegas. In a narrative that ignores many of the rules of linear time and even more of the rules of sexual propriety, Bock enters the lives of a cross-section of fascinating, though unlikable, Vegas personae, from a stripper to her pierced boyfriend—all connected to the disappearance of a spoiled 12-year-old boy. Along the way, we discover that many of them may be little more than spoiled children themselves.
Random House. 432 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400066506

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"One word: bravo. … In Beautiful Children, Bock’s vision and voice create a fictional landscape as corruptly compelling as Vegas, and as beautiful as the illusions its characters cling to for survival—illustrating what he calls ‘the nobility inherent in struggles that cannot be won.’" Liesl Schillinger

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Bock’s] ability to share a deep understanding of America’s million or so lost street kids and their tormented parents gives the book a whiff of greatness. … Beautiful Children is not an easy read, nor is it a polished work." John Burdett

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s chief objective is to offer a fresh vision of the people who make up Las Vegas, outside of the gloss and glitter. As such, it succeeds primarily as a succession of interwoven character studies: a stripper named Cheri Blossom, her boyfriend Ponyboy, a comic-book artist named Bing Beiderbixxe, and a somewhat aimless fellow called Lestat." Fred Leebron

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Beautiful Children is bloated by a serpentine narrative voice that flashes back, forward and around time. … The core story Bock tells is rich and compelling … and his evocation of Las Vegas is cunning and true, enough to make one wonder what Beautiful Children might have been like had the author not tried all his tricks at once." Tod Goldberg

Oregonian 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The question that dogged me throughout was, when does vivid, sometimes even glorious, writing about drug abuse, self-abuse, delusions and (especially) self-delusion, become de facto glamorization of it?" Maya Muir

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Even when it’s not really believable, sex becomes the salvation for all troubles, including the anguish of having a child go missing. Thus Bock manages to trivialize his most important theme, and by throwing in the antics of so many characters who are drugged, homeless, hustling, pimping, God knows what, he dilutes what he has to say." Roberta Silman

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Beyond knowing that his characters are en route to trouble, Mr. Bock has few clear destinations in mind for any of them. This book’s structure is so slack that it seems like a string of overlapping individual sketches, some much better than others." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

This novel about Vegas has been the subject of considerable hype, including a full feature on Bock in the New York Times Magazine. Only a few reviewers found Bock’s debut Beautiful Children brilliant, but to elicit such a reaction, Bock needs the critical equivalent of a straight flush. He needs readers who are willing to accept pages and pages of explicit sexual description, an unorthodox narrative structure, unlikable characters, and an ending that may not satisfy the logic of the missing-person plot. For readers willing to accept all these, or for readers heavily invested in the book’s milieu, Beautiful Children will provide ample payoff. But many readers will find this crowded intersection of postmodern storytelling and postadolescent characters a mere full house.