By Charles Bock
Random House, 417 pp., $25
When it was first created, Las Vegas seemed the quintessential American invention - a place where the pursuit of pleasure would be available to all. Its metamorphosis into a higher-priced, dangerous place dominated as much by sex as gambling has occurred in the last 20 years, and that seamy underside was portrayed in the novel "Leaving Las Vegas," made into a movie in 1995. When it came out, people said: We know all we need to know about Las Vegas.
Now, though, a little more than a decade later, here is this energetic, sprawling first novel by Charles Bock, who was born and bred there, whose main character is, really, Las Vegas itself. Although you get a sense of possibilities often gone terribly wrong from Bock's arresting descriptions of this tinselly place, and although the book grows stronger as you begin to sort out all the characters, you quickly sense that this is not your usual plot- or character-driven novel, even if it is about a missing only child.
Bock seems determined to give us all of Las Vegas, especially as much as he knows about its sex and porn industries. His vision is so filled with adolescent fantasies that it is hard to separate them from anything else, and although I, as a woman, often object to gratuitous sex (as in the novels of Philip Roth), here it deadened the impact of this novel. 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.
There are some wonderful passages and convincing characters. As I read, I wanted to know more about the parents of the missing boy, Lorraine and Lincoln, who were astonished when Lorraine got pregnant and never understood what makes a marriage work; their son, the nerdy Newell, who has a mouth as outrageous as his native city; the older boy Kenny, who meets Newell at the comic book store called Amazing Stories; and the stripper Cheri Blossom, whose sad tale of shattered hopes intersects with Newell's disappearance. But their story is interspersed with so many peripheral, pathetic stories that it becomes wearing, at times painful. You keep hoping that someone will emerge whom you can root for - someone with the strength to fight all the temptations of this lurid city and somehow live with dignity.
Writing fiction has to do with selecting the right details to make your point, and not just splashing everything all over the page. That's what you do when you start to write, when you are learning about your characters. But the trick is to have the strength and discipline to pull them back, and write scene after scene that will reveal their story.
On the other hand, this book, which is clearly indebted to movies and TV, may have a special appeal for readers fascinated by so many facets, by the way the characters come at you with dizzying speed, and also by all the possible ways sex can dominate people's lives. Yet, in 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.
Here is Lincoln realizing he cannot make it in the major leagues: "Lincoln, when he checked deep in his gut, nonetheless recognized a ceiling to his potential. And from the top of this ceiling, he saw how far it was to the Show. Lincoln had the curse of being good enough to see just how much better he needed to be. He also had the ability to ask himself if he honestly wanted to work this hard, if he really wanted to spend his twenties traveling back roads on rickety buses and sleeping in motels on the side of the interstate.
"Calling his dad was not one of the easier things he'd ever done, but after some silence that Lincoln had come to know meant both disappointment and understanding, his father said that all you could ask of a man was to give it his best."
In an interview in last week's
Roberta Silman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.