Beautiful Children: A Novel432
Beautiful Children: A Novel432
“One word: bravo.”—The New York Times Book Review
“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.”—Newsweek
One Saturday night in Las Vegas, twelve-year-old Newell Ewing goes out with a friend and doesn’t come home. In the aftermath of his disappearance, his mother, Lorraine, makes daily pilgrimages to her son’s room and tortures herself with memories. Equally distraught, the boy’s father, Lincoln, finds himself wanting to comfort his wife even as he yearns for solace, a loving touch, any kind of intimacy.
As the Ewings 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. The people of Beautiful Children are “urban nomads,” each with a past to hide and a pain to nurture, every one of them searching for salvation and barreling toward destruction, weaving their way through a neon underworld of sex, drugs, and the spinning wheels of chance.
In this masterly debut novel, Charles Bock mixes incandescent prose with devious humor to capture Las Vegas with unprecedented scope and nuance and to provide a glimpse into a microcosm of modern America. Beautiful Children is an odyssey of heartache and redemption heralding the arrival of a major new writer.
Praise for Beautiful Children
“Exceptional . . . This novel deserves to be read more than once because of the extraordinary importance of its subject matter.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Magnificent . . . a hugely ambitious novel that succeeds . . . Beautiful Children manages to feel completely of its moment while remaining unaffected by literary trends. . . . Charles Bock is the real thing.”—The New Republic
“A wildly satisfying and disturbing literary journey, led by an author of blazing talent.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Wholly original—dirty, fast, and hypnotic. The sentences flicker and skip and whirl.”—Esquire
“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
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.93(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS
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.”
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?