Beautiful Children

( 14 )


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 ...
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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.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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. . . . One word: bravo.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“An affecting story . . . truly powerful . . . Beautiful Children Dazzles its readers on almost every page. . . . [Charles Bock] knows how to tug at your heart, and he knows how to make you laugh out loud, often on the same page, sometimes in the same sentence.”

“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.”

“Exceptional . . . [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. . . . This novel deserves to be read more than once because of the extraordinary importance of its subject matter.”
The Washington Post Book World

“An anxious, angry, honest first novel filled with compassion and clarity. The language has a rhythm wholly its own–at moments it is stunning, near genius.”
–A. M. Homes

“From start to finish, Bock never stops tantalizing the reader.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

“Rich and compelling . . . Captures the hallucinogenic setting like a fever dream.”
–Los Angeles Times

John Burdett
Beautiful Children is…about the aftermath of war—not merely Iraq, although that is mentioned—but more important "the war of all against all," which seems to have been raging for at least a couple of generations. That war is, as Bock demonstrates, destroying our kids with the demonic ingenuity of modern drugs and technology, not to mention the demise of the family itself. In the no-man's-land of Bock's Vegas there remain only the survival strategies of the hopelessly inept young. I cannot think of another novelist who has dared to attack this most pressing and complex issue so ferociously.
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
One word: bravo. Like a whirling roulette wheel, Beautiful Children presents a mesmerizing blur. Imagine each vivid slash of color as a character, with his or her own impetus toward loss and stubborn striving. Bock slows or stops the wheel at will, bringing each slot into saturated individual focus…[his] evocation of experiences most people will (mercifully) never share, and his depiction of each man, woman and child's personal mythology is ravishing and raw…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…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Bock's debut novel is among the most acclaimed of 2008, which makes it surprising that its audio version would appear in a truncated, abridged version. Even in the shortened version, Mark Deakins's reading is mostly solid. Deakins's subdued baritone is deeply soothing, which makes the book perhaps more relaxing than Bock might have intended his jarring portrait of Las Vegas's shattered youth to be. The only real miscalculation in Deakins's reading is when he attempts the voices of Bock's hip-hop-wannabe teenagers. The effect is more ludicrous than accurate and makes for a harsh interruption to his otherwise fluid reading. On second thought, perhaps that does fulfill the book's intent to occasionally shock. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 27, 2007). (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

With blunt and sometimes uncomfortable descriptions of abuse and squalor, this debut novel addresses the harrowing issue of this country's runaway children. Set in the sex-charged city of Las Vegas, the spellbinding plot centers on missing 12-year-old Newell Ewing, covering both the hours surrounding his disappearance and the situation's devastating effect on his parents. Complex characters playing a role in Newell's disappearance occasion a stark look into the grimy world of hustling, strip clubs, and a porn industry drawing transient and desperate teens. Among these characters are the spoiled Newell; Kenny, whose low self-esteem makes him hook up with a younger boy; Cheri, a high-class stripper involved with a skuzzy predator named Ponyboy; a pitiful comic-book artist named Bing; and a host of homeless teenagers like Danger-Prone Daphney-pregnant, doped up, and from an upper-middle-class family. 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 for every collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/1/07.]
—David A. Berona

Kirkus Reviews
This debut shows plenty of ambition and promise but could use a streamlining of subplots. The author casts his native Las Vegas as a microcosm not only for America, but for the human condition as well. At the hub is the Ewing family, Lincoln and Lorraine and their 12-year-old son, Newell, who all appear conventionally (if a little complacently) happy until Newell falls through the city's cracks. Though the central chronology documents the night of Newell's disappearance, flashbacks (and flashes forward) show that the boy wasn't that happy after all. If he were, he'd be the only one in this novel who is. There are many spokes to the plot, most of them tangential. There is the stripper and her boyfriend (verging on pimp), who urges her to get breast implants and coaxes her toward a porn shoot. There is a geeky graphic artist, with the improbable jazz-homage name of Bing Beiderbixxe, who has a scheme that involves both 3-D tattoos and the stripper. There is the dead-end high-school kid who receives encouragement from Bing and who befriends Newell. There is a hallucinatory episode among a homeless pack including a nameless girl with a shaved head, a pregnant girl, a dog and a vampirish hustler. Many of these people converge on a late-night punk-rock bacchanal in the desert, which serves as a sort of climax without bringing the plot full circle. And there are Lincoln and Lorraine, who come to suspect that their son was the only thing holding their marriage together. The tone varies from titillating close-ups of the adult-entertainment industry to background information on runaways that sounds like a public-service announcement. (It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?) On somelevel, everyone is a predator, and any beauty that these children once had has been either taken from them or bartered. Remember Ordinary People? This could have been titled Pathetic People. Agent: Jim Rutman/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Remember Ponyboy Curtis? The 14-year-old smart-boy greaser, dreamer, and lover of sunsets was the hero of S. E. Hinton's nearly perfect novel about coming-of-age in late-'60s Oklahoma, The Outsiders, which, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, survived translation to the screen and became to teenagers growing up in the '80s the generational equivalent of Rebel Without a Cause.

One of those teenagers was presumably Charles Bock, now 38, who resurrects Ponyboy (or at least his namesake) as one of the many characters that swirling through his debut novel, Beautiful Children, set in Bock's hometown of Las Vegas. Bock's outsiders, like Hinton's, live in that liminal space populated almost entirely by the young, who survive according to a complex moral and ethical code nearly invisible to adults. But while Hinton, who wrote and published her novel as a teenager, left Ponyboy back at the same movie theater where she first found him, thinking about Paul Newman and a ride home, Bock's novel sees the same world through the eyes of an adult writer. As such, he begins with the parents and ends with a child.

The parents, Lincoln and Lorraine Ewing (given the great proliferation of pop culture references, one is tempted to hear the theme song to Dallas when they appear), open the novel with the last moving image they have of their 12-year-old son, Newell: a videotape showing a "slouching, unexpressive child" who appears to be uncomfortable at his Little League pizza party. Newell, we discover, has gone missing. After leaving for a Saturday night with his slightly older friend, Kenny, whom he met at a comic book store, he misses his ten o' clock curfew and is never seen again.

The rest of the novel reconstructs the last day of Newell's known existence, accumulating a cast of characters whose stories converge on the night that he disappears. These characters represent such familiar archetypes -- the loving family, the 20-something comic book geek, the stripper with the heart of gold, street kids of every tough and tragic persuasion -- that one does not realize the cumulative wonder of the novel until their stories begin to overlap and refract one another. But once it does, the overall effect is frankly astonishing, providing both a timeless portrait of adolescence, and an exhaustively specific version of a city best known as a destination where one escapes life rather than lives it.

Bock takes us to the part of Vegas where "frequent-player slot clubs provide senior citizens with rebates at area grocery stores." His own parents owned a pawn shop and Kenny's aunt works in one, sandwiched "between the beef jerky store and the place where they sold Nazi memorabilia." Riding around the city in an old ice cream truck are "a bunch of teenagers slinging shit, would-be immortals in conversations destined to be carved on the sides of mountains." We meet a group of runaway teens, including a boy who calls himself Lestat (and who once went on a pilgramage to Anne Rice's house in New Orleans), and his street partner, Daphney, a hugely pregnant girl who slugs cough syrup and brags, "I've been streeting so long, I've got my own milk carton." A young vegan wiccan anarchist known only as "the girl with the shaved head" goes on her first meth trip, and, heartbreakingly, is so close to her own childhood that she is "pumped with childhood goodwill for all the childhood friends whose names she no longer remembered" and hallucinates freckled girls in pigtails and little boys chasing lizards. In Bock's telling, Hinton's Ponyboy, now 20, delivers porn for a man he calls Jabba the Hut and exploits his pragmatic stripper girlfriend, Cheri (named after Cherry Valance, the wealthy girl who befriends Ponyboy in the Hinton novel).

What all of these characters have in common is that they live in a world in which parents are absent or irrelevant. Except for, of course, Newell, who lives in a "moderately prestigious neighborhood" with parents who have built their lives around him. Lincoln was once a handsome athlete, recruited for minor league baseball, who dropped out to become a successful executive with a desk job at a Vegas casino; Lorraine "came heartbreakingly close to making the dance squad for a professional basketball team" and became a showgirl, then a full-time mother instead. But the closer we get to Newell, the more mysterious his disappearance becomes. In this world of lost children, he is the only one who seems to have what everyone else wants and needs. But Bock leaves open the possibility that he deliberately gave it up.

We follow Lincoln and Lorraine up to the year anniversary of their son's disappearance, but throughout the story, Bock relies on the classic technique used in 19th-century novels to telescope forward into his character's uncertain futures. The most beautiful by far is an extended flash-forward sequence in which Kenny imagines half a dozen different adults he may be when he looks back on the night Newell disappeared. At 16, Kenny doesn't know enough about himself to project if he will be discussing this night with a therapist paid for by his cushy corporate job or with a trick picked up the night before, or if his lover will be a man or a woman. But he is certain that he, like everyone else in the novel, will ruminate on this experience throughout his life, and so are we.

Bock reportedly spent 11 years writing this novel and went through at least four drafts. There are still a few seams that show. He often reaches for the obvious metaphor (fat women are stuffed into their clothes "like a sausage casing") and some of his description, in isolation, feels superficially journalistic. Taken alone, his teens might have seemed to flatter themselves into naively thinking they are the first of their kind; his adults might have come across as sentimental and maudlin.

But nothing in this novel is meant to be taken in isolation. Lestat seems to speak for all the beautiful children when he talks about runaway life: "you lived beneath the crushing weight and breadth of a freedom where there was nowhere specific to go, no one to turn to or rely on; a freedom without restraint or responsibility that was both empowered and burdened by the realization that you did not matter." And Lincoln, the grieving father, reflects on "the curse of the early to mid-thirties" when one is "still young enough to remember all the emotions and joys associated with teen delinquency, yet old enough now to be a little worried about the bumping bass in the car next to you." Bock has captured both just about perfectly and has delivered a novel that splendidly exceeds the sum of its parts. --Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus, and The New York Times Book Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812977967
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/13/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 985,426
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet 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

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


4–6:30 P.M.


The lens zooms in, then draws back. The images are shaky: a celebration, that much is clear; children in bright orange jerseys and matching baseball caps, some worn backward, or with bills to the side. They chatter and jibe, passing pitchers of soda, reaching for slices with favorite toppings. Chins shine with grease. Smiles glow as if smeared with lipstick. One boy sits a bit away from the rest, toward the end of the table. He is pretty much the same size as everyone else—pudgier than some, smaller than others. He’s not wearing a cap, though, and the poor resolution of the camcorder makes it look as if the top of his skull might be consumed in flame. But no. Another second shows nothing more dangerous than a mass of bright red hair. The child leans forward now, his jersey bunching around his shoulders. Attempting to convince the nearest teammate to unscrew the top of a salt shaker, his freckled face is animated, lively. Dude, we can hear him say. Come on. Come on, dude. A punch to the shoulder answers him. He squeals, though not unhappily. Dick.

The camcorder’s microphone catches the tail end of a reprimand from an unseen adult. It catches the boy’s protest, It wasn’t me! By this time, though, focus is shifting, swinging toward the middle of the table, where coaches and other adults subdue a slap fight. After a few seconds, a semblance of decorum is reached; the presentation of the next trophy begins, and the camera pans down the length of the table, showing children in varying states of interest. And here judicious use of the fast-forward cues a final appearance by the redheaded boy, for just a few seconds, a short sequence—he directs a sneering remark toward the action; when his neighbor does not respond, the boy sinks into his chair. The flesh of his cheeks lengthens, goes slack. Small eyes cloud, turn dark.

This sequence, these scant seconds, are why the Ewings tracked down that videotape. Because recent photos were supposed to work best, were supposed to give a potential witness the best chance at identification. So Lincoln and Lorraine would stand at the front door of a nice couple whose names they had memorized on the ride over. Nodding soberly, the Ewings would thank the couple for all their help. They would try to make small talk. The delighted shrieks of children would interrupt, breaking out from upstairs, bodies tramping, at play. Then designer sunglasses would not be able to hide Lorraine’s tears. And then Lincoln would take his wife into his arms. Gently he would stroke her hair and gently he would guide her back down the walkway, her face staying buried in his shoulder, her mascara running, just a bit, onto his suit’s lapel. No words between them, just his arm delicate around her waist, their long, twisted shadow slipping diagonally through the trim, open yard. And yes, that black cassette, it would be Lincoln’s possession: in his opposite hand, as far from Lorraine as possible.

In a short amount of time that section of videotape would be transformed into a series of stills, frames scanned into a computer. A single frame would be enlarged, then Photoshopped, resulting in the image of a slouching, unexpressive child. This image would be circulated in e-mail attachments, faxes, and flyers; it would be posted in arcades and student unions and youth hostels; in post offices and convenience stores and drop-in centers for the homeless and indigent. And at some point fairly early on in this process, Lincoln Ewing would be reminded of the damndest piece of information. A drop of conventional wisdom that, honestly, Lincoln had no clue where he’d picked up. It concerned Native Americans. Supposedly, when photography was invented, they believed each picture from the white man’s magic machine removed a piece of the subject’s soul.

This was precisely the kind of thing Lincoln didn’t need in his head. Yet, just as a tongue cannot resist probing the sensitive area of a cracked tooth, Lincoln would find himself returning to that god-awful piece of information: gnawing on it when a police officer misread his son’s birth certificate, causing the boy’s middle name to fall by the wayside, becoming as forgotten as the great-grandfather who had inspired it. And when mention of the boy’s twelve years of age was replaced by his date of birth—this distinction small, but especially painful, however pragmatic; done, it was explained, as a matter of protocol, to acknowledge a grim reality: nobody can say how long a child will be missing.

Lincoln would watch the police spokesman squinting in front of a phalanx of floodlights and tripods, stumbling through a prepared statement that asked for the public’s help; he’d watch the vacuous broadcasters with their melodramatic pronouncements. He would gather up the stuffed-animal bouquets, attend the candlelight vigils. Lincoln would offer rewards and set up 1-800 hotlines. Steps taken for a righteous purpose, in the ostensible hope of solving this tragedy; steps that placed more and more distance between the flesh and blood of Newell Ewing and the cautionary tale his name would come to signify, between the child from that pizza party and the embodiment of every parent’s worst nightmare.

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?

This would be later.


A hundred and five outside for the ninety-ninth straight day. That dry desert heat, a wall that hit the moment you stepped outside, then pounded relentlessly. To get local fanboys away from their liquid crystal screens, out of their air-conditioned living rooms, and into their air-conditioned cars, management at Amazin’ Stories had been importing the biggest names in the fantasy game. Every Saturday afternoon, there were free meet and greets, autographs, happily personalized little doodles, and, sure, loads of stock for sale. So long as nobody went crazy and wheelbarrowed in every comic an artist had done, collectors could even bring their own back issues to be signed. It was a pretty sweet deal, and an effective one, so much so that each weekend, men in their early to middle twenties shuffled self-consciously into the store, half-embarrassed but also nervous, wired, as if the warm spots they possessed for their childhood heroes were stains of gum they’d stepped into and now were unable to free themselves from, the hard and powerful colors pulling, urging them to revisit the ritual of standing inside a store of illustrated books; of reading; of fantasizing and being swept away.

All of twelve years old, Newell was in the bloom of his enchantment. Except for a few times when his parents had made him clip on his tie and go out to brunch with them, he’d spent most of his Saturday afternoons in Amazin’ Stories, squirming through the larger, taller bodies for a better view of the autograph table, hanging on every spoken word from the makeshift lectern, laughing on cue with everyone else. When the iconic septuagenarian had good-naturedly regaled the overflow audience with golden-age reminiscences for a good hour longer than scheduled, Newell had had a primo view. And when the year’s hottest illustrator had repeatedly checked his watch, deflected most questions as “irrelevant,” and repeatedly referred to his upcoming Vanity Fair photo spread, Newell had been on hand for that, too. After a summer of insider tales and celebrity name- dropping, honestly, it wasn’t exactly easy to get jazzed about Bing Beiderbixxe.

From the looks of things, Newell wasn’t alone in this opinion. The store was largely empty, just a few underclassman types solemnly wandering the new arrivals racks, and three or four guys standing at a respectful distance from the autograph table, nodding and listening, but seeming unconvinced, reluctant to come in any closer. Newell couldn’t blame them. Why the illustrator and creative mind behind Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut had been booked, he had no clue. Beiderbixxe’s comic was this cheapo deal, printed on rough paper, published by some rinky-dink outfit. Word of mouth claimed the bizarre name had been lifted from an obscure porno comic, and if that was true, Newell had to admit, it was pretty fresh. Too bad the rest of Whitebread bit so hard. The ditzy blond policewoman with the badge over her crotch never did anything fresh. Every single panel had been ripped off from some way-better comic. Every pose was a pose of a pose. Newell had complained about it to Kenny, who was older and knew a lot more about this stuff. They must not have been able to get anyone else to come, Newell had said, referring to Bing as Bonerbite. Bonerbite sucks goat balls. The hairs from goat balls get stuck between his teeth and Bonerbite walks around sucking on them, getting all the taste he can. Kenny had listened, and after a few moments, in that halting and unconvinced way of his, had admitted he didn’t completely understand, either. He’d taken his time, negotiating and making order of his thoughts, starting over a few times, correcting himself a few more, and finally, Kenny had said the references in Wendy Whitebread were some sort of map, he guessed, and the books were a kind of tribute, he thought, but like a commentary, too. “It’s supposed to be funny. But in a serious way. You know, where not giving away the humor is part of the joke?”

Today, while waiting around, in deference to his friend, Newell had given Wendy Whitebread another chance, examining some of the panels, paying attention to the connection each might have with its source material, trying to figure out, as Kenny had suggested, why Bing might have chosen that specific panel for inspiration, what the changes might have meant. Bing’s logic remained a shelf Newell could not reach, no matter how he strained from the top of his mental tiptoes. Still, the boy had gained enough appreciation for the guy’s work that, presently, from his vantage point, about halfway in the store, he watched the comic book artist with more than a middling interest: Beiderbixxe, hefty and balding, his face large and fleshy, pale and pinkish. Behind boxy black eyeglasses, he appeared intelligent, welcoming even; busily weaving some sort of tale, trying like hell to appeal to each of his few audience members. “In the fifties,” he was saying, “these two, they’d end up beats or novelists or something. In the sixties, they’d be, what, hippy rock stars, Warhol figures. The seventies they become filmmakers. The eighties they get into rap or maybe indie rock. The nineties, that’s easy, they’re hacking the World Bank’s source code.”

Newell half-listened, but was a step behind the story, unable to follow along, and, truth be told, not all that interested. Bing’s meaty left hand wasn’t helping—it kept making this rolling motion, as if this would spin the guy toward his point more quickly. Newell got distracted by the hand, and then his eyes wandered some more, toward the table, near the artist’s elbow, where a plastic bottle was mostly empty, a sluice of fluorescent liquid along the bottom.

“Just putting it out there,” Bing said. “Is it at all possible that these bad kids are the latest installment of avant-garde, that two killers just might be nothing less than evolutionary forerunners?”

The boy gave up now, turning away, looking through the glass door and picture window at the shopping plaza, still and dead, the rows of parked cars, nobody coming or going. The day outside was bright and oppressive, and the boy’s face felt warm. He reached for the vinyl case, which hung from the side belt loop of his jean shorts, and withdrew a small silver device. The tip of his tongue peeked out of the corner of his mouth; his fingers danced a familiar pattern. He listened for three rings but did not leave a message, instead quickly pressing the button in the upper right corner of the pad. More punching now, each digit entered with increasing force. The phone went back to his ear; a longing swelled through him. For a moment he resented the universe for all the things he did not understand. He listened for a time, managed to keep from stomping his foot, and then looked once more to the store’s entrance, a longer, harder look this time, one that concentrated and focused his building energies. Impulses pulsed through Newell, telling him to whirl around, throw his phone at Beiderbixxe, mute that stupid droning voice. Instead the boy pressed a control button on his phone, switching modes.

His high score on the phone game was 730 million, and Newell was on his way to clearing the first screen when a stray missile infiltrated his defense system, obliterating his home base. He snorted a vulgarity, swung his leg as if to punt away the small silver box, and corkscrewed in place. Newell had an impulse to scream at some guy who might have been looking at him. Then his shoulders sagged. The boy sulked and fumed and desultorily hit the reset button on his phone. He was about to start the game over when, from the front of the store, the jingle and clank of small metal bells sounded.

Prodding the door with his shoulder came an odd collection of lines and angles. Gangly, wiry, a little weird-looking, even for this place. Hair was spackled to his forehead in darkish streaks. More hair fell over his eyes, covering his ears, winding down in oily tendrils toward his shoulders. Arms white and thin, like limp strands of uncooked spaghetti, stuck out from a used and faded T-shirt, itself damp, clingy. He wore the same jeans he always did, the only person Newell knew who wore jeans in a hundred-and-ten-degree weather.

“FINALLY, NIGGA. Where the fuck you been, Kenny?”

With unteachable comic timing, the odd lines folded upon themselves, collapsing with an uncoordinated ferocity. Kenny did this strange, desperate wingy deal with his other arm, to no avail—the sheets continued their descent, slipping out from beneath the crook of his arm that had held them.

“Whoa . . . Hey—”

Newell arrived in time to grab the diner place mat. “I got it,” he said, easing a crumpled yellow flyer from the inside of Kenny’s underarm.

“YO, KENNY,” he said. “You made it! My MAN.”

Kenny’s body unclenched; he exhaled, allowed the boy to take the papers, said “Thanks.” Stepping into the store, he raised his head, let the air-conditioning run over him. Newell saw cheeks flushed to the shade of a ripe plum and sparkling with sweat, the bony surface of Kenny’s features appearing raw, irritated.

“Dude. I was fuckin’ bugging. I thought for sure you’d wuss out again.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Literature has no shortage of difficult central characters or difficult child characters (Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree is one example; William Gaddis’s 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. Let’s 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 Faulkner’s Light in August to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Jonathan Franzen’s 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 didn’t you find this to be true?

9. What moments in Lincoln’s life foreshadow Newell’s disappearance. How complicit are his parents in Newell’s 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 Newell’s 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?

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 23, 2008

    God's obligation was his presence within us

    This book deserves its distinction as one of The New York Times Best Books of 2008. It is well-written and organized in such a way that readers understand these characters as people and not as caricatures. Not only that, but Charles Bock has a keen eye for social critique and many of his characters provide insightful commentary about society as well as a developing sense of their own reasons behind their actions. For example, Lestat appears earlier in the novel and the reader is repelled by him, but later on Bock allows the narrative to pick up Lestat's voice and the inner workings of his mind and suddenly the reader is given a new perspective on this character: "The sane sober businessman does not walk down the street talking out loud to himself, but the crazy homeless man does...Over time Lestat had also grown to understand how the former becomes the latter. How all your thoughts and frustrations can inch closer and closer toward one uninterrupted rant. How the chasm between a person and the world around him can grow, a shell forming between the life you once had and the life you are living." This situation is true for the characters in the novel. Each one is dealing with a chasm that either developed while he/she was consciously or unconsciously oblivious or is coming to terms with the fact that the chasm is developing at that moment, based on a particular decision that needs to be made. This, for me, is the best part of the book--that the philosophy and vision behind it are so satisfying. Who hasn't at times felt like Kenny on the side of the road, raising our hands in the air and wondering "What am I supposed to do now?". I like the nun's answer in this novel: You must question how you might be more than you are. Like Rilke writes in his poem "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," You must change your life. I agree. You must also read this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The Grey Line Tour

    Have you ever wondered what happens to the rejects from the Jerry Springer show? The damaged, the destroyed, the sad, the failed folks who couldn't even cut it with America's sleaze fighting show? Neither have I. But Charles Bock has and he doesn't believe that what happens in Vegas stays there, and we're lucky for that. Otherwise we might have missed his brilliant writing, his elegant portrayal, the irony of beautiful children being written about as if they were something other than that. It's a tour of Las Vegas like you will hopefully never see, but if you believe Bock, we are all on that same bus, and it's not always a pretty ride, but one you wouldn't want to miss.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2008

    Good effort but Seriously Flawed

    Beautiful Children is a first novel and a good attempt at providing insight into the underworld of Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the lack of a story to drive the reader forward, combined with pretentious and almost narcissistic writing caused this book to be a complete disaster (my eyes glazed over many a time during long passages that went nowhere and I just didn't care about anyone in this book). I really do appreciate the attempt though. Hopefully in his next work the author will stay with Las Vegas as a setting but focus more on creating a story that makes you turn the pages.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012


    I absolutly love this novel! It took me just a bit to really get into it, although, I can honestly say that this is not a novel to regret!

    Add me as a friend! z a r a t e . l u z 1 3 2 6 @ a t t . N e t

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 16 of 14 Customer Reviews

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