Synopses & Reviews
One Saturday night in Las Vegas, twelve-year-old Newell Ewing goes out with a friend and doesn't come home. As the boy's distraught parents navigate the mystery of what's become of their son, the circumstances surrounding Newell's vanishing and other events on that same night reverberate through the lives of seemingly disconnected strangers: a comic book illustrator in town for a weekend of debauchery; a painfully shy and possibly disturbed young artist; a stripper who imagines moments from her life as if they were movie scenes; a bubbly teenage wiccan anarchist; a dangerous and scheming gutter punk; a band of misfit runaways.
These urban nomads, each with a past to hide and a pain to nurture, search for salvation as they barrel toward destruction, weaving their way through a neon underworld of sex, drugs, and the spinning wheels of chance.
"A wide-ranging portrait of an almost mythically depraved Las Vegas, this sweeping debut takes in everything from the bland misery of suburban Nevada to the exploitative Vegas sex industry. At the nexus of this Dickensian universe is Newell Ewing, a hyperactive 12-year-old boy with a comic-book obsession. One Saturday night, Newell disappears after going out with his socially awkward, considerably older friend. Orbiting around that central mystery are a web of sufferers: Newell's distraught parents, clinging onto a fraught but tender marriage; a growth-stunted comic book illustrator; a stripper who sacrifices bodily integrity for success; and a gang of street kids. Into their varying Vegas tableaux, Bock stuffs an overwhelming amount of evocative detail and brutally revealing dialogue (sometimes in the form of online chats). The story occasionally gets lost in amateur skin flicks, unmentionable body alterations and tattoos, and the greasy cruelty of adolescents, all of which are given unflinching and often deft closeups. The bleak, orgiastic final sequence, drawing together the disparate plot threads, feels contrived, but Bock's Vegas has hope, compassion and humor, and his set pieces are sharp and accomplished." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This debut shows plenty of ambition and promise but could use a streamlining of subplots....On some level, everyone is a predator, and any beauty that these children once had has been either taken from them or bartered." Kirkus Reviews
"This powerful indictment of a culture of 'people hurting people for no reason' promises to shake up the moral conscience of every reader. A comprehensive drama; highly recommended." Library Journal
"Bock's characters are well drawn, he works to tie his plot threads together, and he clearly cares about runaways...but his debut novel deflates too abruptly at its close. More raw than its title suggests, this is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart." Booklist
"The story, rendered beautifully, even heartbreakingly, plays out at top speed, blocked only by a chunk of chat-room text and a few other odd snippets. Yet the doom enveloping Newell is so palpable it almost suffocates the reader, too. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"Beautiful Children has no real built-in trajectory....This book's structure is so slack that it seems like a string of overlapping individual sketches, some much better than others." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Beautiful Children is not an easy read, nor is it a polished work....And yet this novel deserves to be read more than once because of the extraordinary importance of its subject matter and the sensitivity with which he treats it." John Burdett, The Washington Post Book World
"[I]n the end I feel that too much in Beautiful Children is told rather than shown, that the repetitions slow down the story, and that the novel could have been shaped into something more compelling. Even when Bock begins to dig deeper, he seems to lose his nerve. That is a shame, because he has real talent and insight." The Boston Globe
"Wholly original — dirty, fast, and hypnotic. The sentences flicker and skip and whirl, like the neon city Bock writes about. It will change the way you look at Las Vegas." Esquire
"Like Don DeLillo, his influential predecessor in chronicling contemporary fear, Bock sounds an alarm: something is wrong in America, his novel tells us, when we allow the current conditions to exist unchallenged and unchecked. Exquisitely attuned to what is most destabilizing in our culture, he has his finger on those veins of anxiety that start deep within the individual and flow outward to create a giant societal web of unease. But while DeLillo's characters have always been stick figures frozen into various gestures of anomie, Bock animates the flamboyant structure of his novel with a dark, pulsating heart, juggling with admirable facility the contrapuntal voices and stories of more than half a dozen major characters. With its famous facsimiles of New York and Egypt and Polynesia, Las Vegas may be a giant deception in the desert, but Charles Bock is the real thing." Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
In this masterly debut novel, Bock mixes incandescent prose with devious humor to capture Las Vegas with unprecedented scope and nuance. Beautiful Children is an odyssey of heartache and redemption as each character barrels toward personal destruction.
About the Author
Charles Bock was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has received fellowships from Yaddo, UCross, and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in New York City. Visit the author's website at www.beautifulchildren.net.
Reading Group Guide
1. Literature has no shortage of difficult central characters or difficult child characters (Forrest Carters The Education of Little Tree
is one example; William Gaddiss JR
is another). Why do you think Charles Bock, the author of Beautiful Children,
made Newell Ewing such a difficult character?
2. What role does the city of Las Vegas play in Beautiful Children? Would the book have worked if it took place in any other city? What does Las Vegas have to do with the idea of the American Dream? How about the idea of the American appetite?
3. Chapter 3 mentions “the conspiracy of human frailty” (page 105). What does this phrase mean in Beautiful Children? How does it apply to the major characters?
4. Lets face it: This novel is full of graphic violence, drug use, and explicit sex. Do you think a book can delve into such subjects without sensationalizing them? Does Beautiful Children avoid sensationalism, or is its purpose merely exploitative? If you feel the author did attempt to explore adult materials without sensationalizing them, how successful do you think he was in his attempt?
5. Along those lines, Bock has said that he feels there is a direct line running from the American Dream to pop culture through pornography to teen runaways. Do you think this is true? What are the connective tissues?
6. The novel starts with a videotape, and, in fact, two types of videotapes move through the novel. Discuss the role of videotapes and what they represent. What is the significance of the scene on pages 259—260.
7. Discuss whether Kenny is a sympathetic character. Discuss whether it is possible to feel empathy for a character who does what Kenny has done.
8. Did the structure of the novel work? Other novels ranging from William Faulkners Light in August to Joseph Hellers Catch-22 to David Foster Wallaces Infinite Jest to Jonathan Franzens The Corrections have used similar structures. The author has claimed that he always hoped the sum of the book would be greater than any single part. Why did you or didnt you find this to be true?
9. What moments in Lincolns life foreshadow Newells disappearance. How complicit are his parents in Newells final decision?
10. Ponyboy and Cheri are obvious references to characters from the S. E. Hinton novel The Outsiders. But each character is very different from his or her counterpart in the Hinton book. Why do you think the author did this? In fact, Beautiful Children recycles a number of objects from The Outsiders and uses them for purposes that are in opposition to their original function (an ice-cream truck, for example). Discuss this motif and why it might pertain to Las Vegas in particular.
11. Contrast Newells personality with that of the girl with the shaved head. When they meet at the end of the novel, what does it represent for each character? What is the author saying through what happens. Or is he saying anything at all?
12. What do you think happens to Newell? Why do you think the book ends the way it does?
Charles Bock on PowellsBooks.Blog
My new novel, Alice and Oliver
, is loosely based on the first year of my late wife Diana Colbert’s battle with leukemia, a disease she was diagnosed with when our infant daughter was six months old. As you might suspect from that lead-in, it is a book about love and generosity and the conflict between what we owe ourselves and what we owe others...