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Beautiful Children Paperback – 1 February 2009
- Publisher : John Murray; 1st edition (1 February 2009)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 432 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0719596300
- ISBN-13 : 978-0719596308
- Dimensions : 12.8 x 2.6 x 19.8 cm
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If other readers come away from this book feeling as if they've been privy to some unforgettable experiences but ultimately left feeling hollow, perhaps Bock has succeeded in conveying what Vegas is like from an local's perspective.
Vegas is one of those cities that I've always found equally fascinating and repulsive. I'd imagine that it would be difficult to feel like one is truly living a wholesome and meaningful life there considering the foundation the city is built upon. Not that it would be impossible, but it must be far from the norm, and I feel that Bock does a good job conveying this. Even the most stable of the brilliantly portrayed characters in the book live lives that are based on flash, hustle, and materialism. None of the characters are free from deeply troubling elements, which I'm sure are much more common when one considers the motives that lead people to move to such a city. I suppose in the end, the book only confirmed the suspicions I already had after visiting the city a dozen or so times under a number of pretenses.
It's a bit difficult to assign a star rating to this one, so I'm mainly basing it on how engaged I was the entire time. Unlike other reviewers, I was always drawn to the text and eager to continue reading up to the last page. I found the mystery component behind the disappearance of Newell to be secondary to all the other stories told, but a strong element of suspense that ultimately disappointed. Much like driving away from a weekend in Vegas, this book did not leave me feeling more optimistic, but it was a wild ride that I won't forget.
Bock is a skilled wordsmith, but too much so. People with the kind of grasp of language that he has sometimes don't know when enough is too much, sort of like that friend we all have who is an amazing singer, but who annoys everyone to death by singing all the time and at the drop of a hat. Because this book is more a series of character studies than anything else, there are lots and lots of passages that are nothing but protracted narratorial monologues. Bock's goal here is lofty, and he believes that loftly language is necessary to accomplish it.
Unfortunately, where the book succeeds the most is when Bock decides to stop telling and instead just shows. Kids misbehaving, parents arguing, losers and rejects claiming curb space, these moments are the book's poignant heart. They do much more to illustrate life's buffet of painful precedents than the protracted moments where Bock goes lapses into exhaustive pop psychology, describing character motivations and histories with such detail that they become dull and numbing.
In the acknowledgments, Charles Bock mentions that "This novel took a long time to write." He also thanks someone for "shooting me full of all those drugs" and he is grateful to "Certain people in the world of adult entertainment ... kind enough to take me ... onto their sets." I mention this because I think it's indicative of where Bock got it wrong, and where he could've gotten it right. Bock was attempting an hardcore realism, hence the extensive (and maybe unnecessary -- he shot himself full of drugs?) research. However, the best writers take that research and let it form the ambient backdrop of their own minds, using that knowledge to form honest and true characters and events. Instead of using what he learned to coax life into his book, Bock apparently just took everything he learned and dumped it en masse onto the pages. Hence the long, cheesy passages about what it's like to snort heroin (I assume it was heroin). Hence the completely unnecessary diatribes about pornography. Hence so much telling.
Gut the novel of the encyclopedic research and leave behind the beautiful children (and adults) which it is about, and you'd have a real character study, a sharp and clarifying expose of why life sometimes regresses into abandonment embraced. Instead, you have an overfed beast of a book that is so gorged on exposition and detail that it lumbers through every chapter at a torturous pace. The people in this book are all running, which is why it is so unfortunate that the book itself merely crawls.
The strength of Bock's writing is in his seemingly effortless ability to present the inner dialogue of his characters while maintaining an almost feverish forward motion. The fact that he moves the reader through time and character like a pinball bouncing off the electric neon of Las Vegas might seem discomforting to some readers, and the language is rough and aggressive in it's representation of people struggling to understand and survive at the edge of our world, an edge dominated by drugs, sex and desperation. There certainly is no tidy wrapping up of character story-lines - Bock's use of narrative device is tightly controlled, allowing him to use that strength as the final turn in the novel, thus providing the reader with a larger understanding of where he is taking us, rather than where he has led his characters.
This book is certainly not an easy read (and at times an uncomfortable one) but it is both a compelling and ultimately necessary journey for anyone willing to look in a mirror being held by a talented observer of the American cultural landscape.