In Charles Bock's debut novel, Beautiful Children, Las Vegas is a point of arrival for runaways, hustlers, addicts, would-be porn stars, strippers, comic-book artists, and regular tax-paying hotel employees trying to raise a family. The city's neon pollutes the night sky with an unnatural glow, exposing real people trying to live real lives in a place that peddles false hope.
Children's story mostly concerns the disappearance of 12-year-old Newell Ewing, a bratty, foul-mouthed lover of UNLV basketball, comics, and hip-hop slang. The book's crowded cast includes Bing Beiderbixxe, an underground, overweight comics artist who mingles with a stripper named Cheri Blossom, whose claim to limited fame is that she can light her nipples on fire. Then there's a drifter named Lestat, an Anne Rice devotee who mostly roams the scenery with the pregnant, homeless Daphney. When Daphney isn't taking swigs of cough medicine for the buzz, she likes to subject her new friend, simply known as "the girl with the shaved head," to reattaching her labial piercings, which come undone as her pregnancy progresses. Meanwhile, Ponyboy, Cheri's boyfriend, bounces between schemes (porn-related, mostly), trying to make ends meet. And Kenny, Newell's older friend, an aspiring comics artist, is pale and awkward enough to choose to hang out with a 12-year-old.
Grounding this cast of caricatures are Newell's parents, Lorraine and Lincoln, whose unlikely Vegas domesticity comes unraveled as the months pass by with no sign of their son. Their grief is a reminder that the rest of the book's "children"—pierced, tattooed, drunk, and blindly reckless—were indeed once beautiful. Regardless of whether the city has failed them, the ideas it was built on certainly have.
Bock fills long, Don DeLillo-like passages with deep-delving poetic cadences, and he elevates the city's seediness with the kind of careful eye Robert Stone brought to New Orleans in A Hall Of Mirrors. Passages about the intricacies of pornography are too long, especially while Bock leaves his readers worrying about Newell's fate. But the extreme hopelessness plaguing almost everyone in Beautiful Children is so taxing that it makes compassion difficult. Maybe that's the point: In Las Vegas, the natives don't want sympathy; they just want better luck.