By Charles Bock
(Random House, 417 pp., $25)
If you ate breakfast in America during the 1980s, you probably remember the milk-carton children. A face staring out next to your bowl of cereal, identified only by the barest of data--name, date of birth, height, weight, date last seen--and accompanied by the vaguely implicatory question: Have you seen this child? The best known were the victims of abduction, like six-year- old Etan Patz, the first child ever pictured on a milk carton, who vanished en route to his school bus stop in Manhattan in 1979 and was never seen again; and Polly Klaas, the twelve-year-old girl kidnapped from her bedroom in 1993 and found murdered soon after, whose parents now run a website called the Milk Carton Project with a database of missing children.
The abductees are still the focus of news stories and Amber Alerts. But--as a mother will learn in Charles Bock's magnificent first novel--the majority of missing children are runaways. In Beautiful Children, they include Ponyboy, who left home after the death of his little brother and makes a living as a bike messenger delivering pornographic videotapes; the vampirishly skinny Lestat, who hitchhiked across the country to visit Anne Rice's house and never returned home; and a pregnant teenager known as "Danger-Prone Daphney," who brags that her own picture was once on a milk carton. She collected them as souvenirs, but since she had nowhere to keep them, the milk quickly spoiled, and eventually she lost the empty cartons as well.
Why do children disappear? This is one of the preoccupations of Bock's novel, which centers around the disappearance of Newell Ewing, age twelve, late one summer night in the desert outside Las Vegas. Vegas is Bock's hometown, and the novel's release was accompanied by interviews and profiles in which Bock detailed his upbringing there as the son of pawnshop owners. Critics have praised the novel for its fidelity to its gritty milieu, its insider's perspective on the sordid reality behind the ersatz glitz of America's most unreal city. But this is not a thinly disguised autobiography masquerading as a novel. The surface of Beautiful Children is as multifaceted and glittering as a disco ball, but underneath is an utterly convincing vision of the quicksand of corruption: how quickly a person can sink into it, and how difficult it is to pull yourself out.
Of course, Bock is hardly the first writer to take an interest in the American underworld. The Beats defiantly, and sometimes beautifully, elevated the seedy into a subject for literature, and writers from John Rechy to Arthur Bradford have embraced a style that might be called grunge fiction. But the similarities between that genre and Beautiful Children are only superficial. Bock's novel never devolves into a freak show. His strippers and punks do not interest him for whatever nocturnal or countercultural glamour they might confer on his book--which, in the end, is admirably conventional, in the sense of paying respect to the essential conventions of fiction's art, to which all the most accomplished novels must somehow reconcile themselves. His characters interest him as human beings, not as evidence of a picaresque past or as markers of some kind of wild-side lifestyle. And his prose is too lucid to sink into the banal raptures of drug-induced meandering.
Like Don DeLillo, his influential predecessor in chronicling contemporary fear, Bock sounds an alarm: something is wrong in America, his novel tells us, when we allow the current conditions to exist unchallenged and unchecked. Exquisitely attuned to what is most destabilizing in our culture, he has his finger on those veins of anxiety that start deep within the individual and flow outward to create a giant societal web of unease. But while DeLillo's characters have always been stick figures frozen into various gestures of anomie, Bock animates the flamboyant structure of his novel with a dark, pulsating heart, juggling with admirable facility the contrapuntal voices and stories of more than half a dozen major characters. With its famous facsimiles of New York and Egypt and Polynesia, Las Vegas may be a giant deception in the desert, but Charles Bock is the real thing.
Like the interlocking strands of a double helix, Beautiful Children moves simultaneously forward and back, circling around the moment of Newell's disappearance. In the first scene, his parents, Lincoln and Lorraine, are watching a videotape of him from a recent birthday party that contains the last known images of their son--soon to be reproduced in e-mail attachments and flyers and circulated anywhere he might be seen. Then the action jumps back to the afternoon of that last day, with Newell meeting his friend Kenny at a local comics store and setting in motion the events of that night. This back-and- forth pattern plays out over the course of the novel, expanding to encompass both the future (Lincoln and Lorraine during a year of life on their own) and the past (the numerous flashbacks through which we see the characters' history), while contracting relentlessly as Newell proceeds in something like real time through the evening and night of that decisive day.
Lorraine was a showgirl whose career ended abruptly with her pregnancy at age twenty, and Lincoln is a failed baseball player who does p.r. for the Kubla Khan Hotel, one of the local pleasure domes. Loving if somewhat vapid parents, neither has much of a relationship with their hyperactive, surly, distant son. Lorraine's conversations with him are conducted mainly through the rear-view mirror. Lincoln, trying unsuccessfully to connect, takes the boy to a UNLV basketball game. In one of the novel's characteristic shifts in viewpoint, we see the scene first through the eyes of Lincoln, swallowing his disappointment as Newell scampers off with friends before the national anthem has ended. Much later, when Newell replays the same scene in his mind, we discover that the other kids are just the boy's excuse to get away: he prefers to spend the game by himself, peering down from the upper deck, sailing onto the court paper airplanes made from the pages of the expensive program his father bought him. Throughout the novel, Bock uses this disjunction between points of view to great advantage, often cutting abruptly from one character to another to show how short is the distance from one person to the next, and how deep the gulf.
To call Newell a loner credits him with too much choice in the matter. His only friend is an older boy named Kenny--a gangly post-adolescent described as "an odd collection of lines and angles"--whom he meets at the comics store. A student at the vocational high school, Kenny has no family life to speak of: his father is an alcoholic and gambling addict who often "stumbled back down the proverbial twelve steps," and his aunt works in one of the downtown pawnshops catering to the desperate, where she was once a customer. His only real relationship with another human being took place at a remove. One day at school he noticed an unusually good drawing etched into the desk where he was sitting, and produced an appreciative image in return. At the next class, he was pleased to discover a response in kind. Over a period of months, the drawings became more and more elaborate and coded, until Kenny finally dared a further step: he sketched the portrait of the other boy, whom he suspected he knew from the comics store, and received a sketch of himself back. But when they meet one day at the school's metal detector, Kenny--for reasons that he cannot understand--finds himself unable to meet the boy's eyes. His ambivalence about this relationship becomes one of the forces that will drive the novel to its inexorable conclusion.
"A child's world is a ripe grape waiting to be tasted," Lorraine thinks at one point. "The real meanings of words, the weight of consequences, adulthood, with all its responsibilities and implications, is as impenetrable to a child as martian trigonometry." Many of the novel's characters are children on the cusp of adulthood, waiting for the moment of possibility that will launch them over the hurdle of the present and into the future. They still cling to the teenager's conviction that it is better to make something, anything, happen than to worry about what that something should be. But the world of the novel's children is equally impenetrable to the adults, and Lorraine's vision of youth is sharply at odds with the way it is experienced by Newell, Kenny, and the other disturbed souls they will meet over the course of the night. Fleeing a casino cop, they find themselves face to face with the homeless teens lining the sidewalk, Daphney among them:
Propped up against the base of the casino wall like an abandoned doll, the body was bulky in places, but still frail enough to look as if it might be carried along by a good wind. Electricity glossed over its mess of hair--kinked and matted strands of indistinct, artificial colors, clumped in all directions. Legs and shredded leggings were extended outward on a crushed cardboard box, perhaps a series of them.
Through the spaces between the people ahead of him, Kenny could see that it was hugely pregnant, stretching out and sticking out of the bottom of her tank top, her belly this mass of flesh, rubbery in appearance, the color of uncooked bird....
Her arms reached and extended upward. Fingers danced, squalid with steel skulls and python rings. "Spare some change for some ketamine," she said.
Bock's style is muscular and impersonal, ranging in tone from sardonic (a soda is "sixty-four ounces of caffeinated carbonation") to euphoric. Though he sometimes overdoes the chilliness and the de-personalization, here it works to great effect: to the boys, Daphney seems sub-human, a piece of refuse left on the street. (The ghoulish-looking Lestat, who plays a sly trick on Newell, is even more appalling.) But a few pages later we see her again through the eyes of another character, a skinhead teenager who is always called only "the girl with the shaved head": "like a sprinkle of pepper atop an egg, is how she phrased it." Horrified by Daphney's condition--the girl glimpses her trying to get high on cough syrup--she is nonetheless kind enough to ask gently, "Should you be doing that?" As they talk, Daphney brags about her milk carton, and the girl with the shaved head asks to see it:
Swollen and grime-laden hands bloomed, each steel-covered finger turning alive, adding interpretive pantomimes to the performance, becoming as agitated as Daphney's voice: "What happened was, we didn't have no place to put the milk and it went bad and so they made me throw it out. But then I kept some of the cartons, you know, stored pens and lighters and birthie stuff in some. The others I just folded up. But then, I was supposed to go base with these fuckwads right? ... That's a total different story. Anyways, my shit got jacked. "
Disco ball refractions formed a kaleidoscope across Daphney's profile, imbuing her face with a pattern of small, almost translucent snowflakes. To the girl with the shaved head she appeared beautiful and full of pain and beautiful for all her pain. The girl wanted to cover her and protect her. For an instant, she thought of taking her back home.
"I went to the stores," Daphney said, "but the cartons had all different kids."
Her voice then became quiet, cracking as she whispered, "I couldn't find me no more."
A lopsided fun cup emerged from her lap. Shaking away the memory, Daphney reached for passing tourists. "Please spare some change for some low-grade ketamine."
Lest we choke with sentiment, Bock quickly returns this reverie to earth with the revelation of exactly why Daphney has been desperately waiting for another girl to come along: not because she longs for female company, but because she needs help to re-screw one of her genital piercings. Yet the shift in perspective has served its purpose by humanizing Daphney, putting a face on "this mass of flesh." Much later, the novel will ask its reader to make the same shift with respect to the repulsive Lestat, who is suddenly revealed as a beleaguered and lonely boy rejected by a series of runaway girls, a boy who longs for "someplace safe and warm" so that he can "write a book that would change the world."
Though Beautiful Children is clearly sympathetic to the runaway's sense of infinite possibility--the notion that in a single moment one's path can be altered, that anything can happen--it does not quite romanticize life on the street. A relentlessly grim picture comes from Lestat, who wears two pairs of socks to avoid getting blisters. He has chronic skin rashes from not bathing. His fingers become "so caked in dirt that he had to stop brushing his teeth with them." He suffers from diarrhea and at one point has to use his sock as toilet paper. And like many runaways, he eventually finds himself turning tricks for food: "When Lestat fell to his knees he felt like he was betraying everything he knew about himself, and at the same time it was a very logical decision. Lestat needed money to eat. He needed money to live. There was a chance he'd get taken to an apartment where he could get a shower."
Beautiful Children has been discussed as a novel about runaways. But it is also, even more darkly and more importantly, a novel about pornography and prostitution, those twin pillars that together support what is euphemistically known as the "adult entertainment industry." Bock seems to know this world: the "small and windowless storefront," its parking lot blinded by a cinderblock wall, where an Arab immigrant mops the stalls in which the men watch their videos; the strip clubs where "champagne dances" are done with apple juice; the nondescript office where the videos are made, with a syringe of "instant wood" on hand for backup. Every man in the novel is somehow implicated in the porn industry--the question is how deeply. Are they just lonely, like Bing, a comic book artist who visits a strip club after Kenny is the only fan to show up for his book-signing at the comics shop? Are they apparently ordinary guys like Lincoln, who turns to watching porn on his office VCR to forget the troubles in his marriage? Or is it their life, as is the case for Ponyboy, the porn video bike messenger, and his stripper girlfriend, picturesquely named Cheri Blossom?
At Ponyboy's instigation, Cheri has transformed her body with what must be the world's most astonishing set of breast implants: as the climax to her act, she packs her hollowed-out nipples with candle wax and wicks, and sets them on fire for a lucky patron to blow out. (She has also sculpted her pubic hair into a heart-shaped bull's eye, highlighting the layers with different colors of tattoo ink.) A surrealist turn in an otherwise realist fiction is often more bewildering than enlightening; but in Bock's Las Vegas, it is exactly the right touch. If a stripper anywhere were to have flaming nipples, it would be in this spectacle of excess: "The neon. The halogen. The viscous liquid light.... The twenty-four-hour bacchanal. The party without limits. The crown jewel of a country that has institutionalized indulgence."
Ponyboy, the kind of boyfriend who sends his girl flowers paid for with a stolen credit card, has higher aspirations for Cheri. The sequence in which he convinces her to make a porn video, and what happens at the shooting, contains some of the more harrowing fictional moments in recent memory. Reproducing his son's image on hundreds of fliers, Lincoln remembers the Native American superstition that photography steals the soul; pornography represents the ultimate vindication of that belief. What could be more soul-destroying, Cheri will wonder, than having sex on camera? Yet the novel also reveals the thorough routinization of what has become the most institutionalized of indulgences. "Porn's not just a guilty pleasure for the raincoat crowd, not no more," Ponyboy's boss, a sickening porn mogul known as Jabba the Hut, tells him. (In a creepy marketing gimmick, Bock has lately been circulating a "viral video" that teases the viewer with a version of one of the novel's porn scenes--complete with a scantily clad "amateur" actress--and then cuts to Bock's website just as things start getting dirty.)
Lincoln, who is repelled by the fakeness of it all but watches anyway, is too sensitive not to notice the pain on the women's faces: "She was just lying there and ... waiting for it to be over and to have survived, and here, now, for the shortest of snippets, one and two and out, the camera captured the blond woman leaning over, gently stroking the side of the redhead's brow. Lincoln would watch this and he would have to turn away." Ponyboy's true depravity is that, at the height of his porn addiction, the pain is what gets him off:
the girls who gagged and threw coughing fits and looked dumbly to the camera for help and guidance.... Ponyboy liked watching the ones who understood this was not going to be the same kind of night they'd spend with a boyfriend, who knew this was not going to be a session of gentle and sweet lovemaking, and yet still remained clueless as to the significant differences between uncaring and promiscuous and even quid pro quo sex, and just what they had signed on for here.... What always got Ponyboy was the face of the girl. The pulse of worry as she realized she was in too deep. The pain. The abject terror. What Ponyboy got off on were the girls who grabbed the bedsheet and held on for dear life. Who tried not to look as if they were being split apart.
At the end of that speech, Bock's lens cuts right back to Lincoln in his office, watching helplessly despite himself. Perhaps not so much separates the two men as we might like to believe.
All the characters in Beautiful Children seek means of escape-- if not actually through running away, then through comic books, video games, music, porn. Reading a novel, too, is a form of escapism, and one measure of Bock's great success is that his book allows the reader metaphorically to enact this escape. More than one scene was so terrible to read that I actually cried out, but the pleasures of immersion in this fictional universe are nonetheless so considerable that--like Lincoln watching his porn videos, or Bing presented with Cheri's flaming nipples--you cannot turn away. Indeed, the imaginative world of the novel is so vivid and complete that it is a little dismaying to find, at the very end, the only false note: an appended list of resources and advocacy groups for runaways, as if the subject of the novel were just another issue of the day. A work of fiction is not a position paper, and whatever didactic purpose it serves is finally irrelevant.
As a writer, Bock is still a little rough. His characters' dramatic monologues sometimes run away from them, and certain anachronisms in the plot (particularly its heavy emphasis on videotapes) betray the eleven years he reportedly spent on the book. But these are minor complaints about a hugely ambitious novel that succeeds in ways that other recent (and hugely hyped) novels of similar ambition have failed. Beautiful Children manages to feel completely of its moment while remaining calmly unaffected by literary trends. It makes only the faintest nod toward magical realism. It is free of typographical gimmicks and other antics of style. And it demonstrates a deep, almost classical understanding of the way the novel form ought to work--the patterning, the layers of meaning, the motif casually tossed into the beginning pages that is picked up again later with an altogether different spin--that so often is missing in even the most lauded contemporary novels.
Early in the novel, Bing quotes a portentous statement from DeLillo's Mao II: "Beckett is the last major writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major works involve midair explosions and crumbling buildings. This is the new tragic narrative." If Bock has a spiritual godfather, it is DeLillo, who in White Noise and Underworld was unparalleled in chronicling the millennial hysteria that made American society uniquely prone to conspiracy theories and outsize fears. But the anticlimax of the millennium's arrival, coupled with the thunderbolt of September 11, sucked the air out of DeLillo's subject: what is a novelist of paranoia to do when disaster has already happened? And so his writings since 2001 have been characterized by a new flatness, perhaps because he no longer believes in his own conspiracy theories.
Without ever actually saying that DeLillo was wrong, Beautiful Children points gently yet insistently at a very different direction for the post- millennial novel of American unease. Early on, the girl with the shaved head-- who will become, over the course of the novel, the victim of its most terrible crime--remembers railing at her mother about the corruptions of the casinos: the pumped-in oxygen to keep the gamblers awake, the windowless rooms to make them lose track of time, and all the other tricks that by now seem shocking only to a teenager. And she remembers her mother's response: "'There's not any grand conspiracy. I mean, yes but....' The conspiracy of human frailty, was the phrase her mother used." In this almost throwaway line, Bock locates the essence of the new tragic narrative: not what has been, or will be, done to us, but what we do--and fail to do--to each other.