For Newell Ewing, a twelve-year-old malcontent growing up in a middle-class Las Vegas subdivision, the Strip—“The neon. The halogen. The viscous liquid light”—is a bright abstraction, beads on the horizon as distant and unattainable as the moon. One Saturday evening, chaperoned by his older friend Kenny, Newell makes his first visit to the casinos. He never comes home. Charles Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, opens almost a year after the fateful August night Newell ran away.
Newell’s parents realize that their prolonged estrangement may have contributed to his disappearance. A former minor-league infielder, Lincoln “Link” Ewing sleeps in the guest room and continues to do his job, leasing convention space at the Kubla Khan casino, by rote. His homemaker wife, ex-showgirl Lorraine, maintains their empty nest while organizing a fund-raiser for runaways. Lincoln and Lorraine’s failure to connect undoubtedly wounded their son, but Newell’s folks are not the only ones responsible for his flight.
Swaths of Beautiful Children take place on the outskirts of the Ewings’ tale—in the cul-de-sacs, side streets, and convenience stores away from tourist thoroughfares. Here, where the city’s residents conduct their lives, the novel’s other major characters converge, including aspiring comic-book artist Kenny, whose behavior on the night in question dogs his conscience; Bing Beiderbixxe, the sad-sack professional inker Kenny admires; Cheri Blossom, the stripper Bing falls for, whose signature act is to place lit candles on her surgically augmented nipples; Ponyboy, Cheri’s heavily pierced would-be pornographer boyfriend; and the adolescent misfit infatuated with Ponyboy and known to the reader only as “the girl with the shaved head.”
If these descriptions sound like types, that’s because Bock has a proclivity for conveying his characters and their attitudes with generalizations that sound like a marketer identifying his target demographic. Admittedly, this suits the sociological aims of the book. But for a novelist concerned with the exploitation of minors, Bock writes about youth subcultures he appears to know little about, seemingly just to harness their edginess quotient. One of his anticonsumerist teens gripes, for example, that “clothing companies like Independent and Vans” rapaciously market their logo T-shirts to kids, when in fact Independent is a manufacturer of skateboard trucks and a company whose products are so respected and unassailable among skaters that they refer to them simply as “Indies.” On the subjects of comic books and punk rock, the author’s footing is similarly shaky.
At least Bock is wise enough to know that, to adults, teenagers are an inscrutable species. No matter what we learn about Newell, his motivations for leaving home remain a tantalizing mystery, much as the Strip once was to him.