Charles Bock was more fun to hear speak than to read; alas, I began Beautiful Children with anticipation that went unfulfilled. Problems manifested early: descriptions of video games modeled on Doom sounded vaguely off, and I’ve never seen “hard drives the size of mini-fridges.” Yet I could ignore linguistic problems when I find also find a perfect description of many would-be artists: “He had aspirations to nothing less than the creation of sensitive, artistic, emotionally honest pictures that, just maybe, would get him laid.” In another section, evocations of common ground seem strained, as when the father of lost boy Newell Ewing says that “He got […] trapped in another Politics of Marriage Conversation.” Status is everywhere in Beautiful Children, but more often stated than shown, or shown via consumption. But whenever I was about to stop reading, I’d find something like this:
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.
Er: it’s almost right, but “electricity” feels wrong because it’s not electricity but electric light that illuminates hair. This is a microcosm of Beautiful Children: it feels like it should be more right than it is. Clichés distract—someone “was bleeding like a stuck pig” and elsewhere a stripper named Cheri goes on “about character arcs and emotional journeys until the friggin’ cows came home.” Perhaps this is how the character would think, but the problem of how banal, uneducated characters think and speak versus the literary needs of the author is never really resolved*. If teenagers sound like teenagers they’re often boring or vapid; if they sound like adults, they don’t sound real. If there is a satisfactory solution to this problem, it is not obvious in Beautiful Children; in other novels it involves a “precocious” or abnormally literary narrator. Instead, Beautiful Children opts for long transcriptions of teenage argot that eventually had me flipping pages in a quest for substance. It was hard enough to find when a character thinks, “You cannot possibly fathom an end to your observations about the status of your physical decline, a final finality. Such things are beyond you, as they are beyond anyone; and yet the evidence permeates your days, unavoidably present, oozing from the southwestern decor of a master bedroom […]” I can’t see Robertson Davies going into such despair. Perhaps John Banville would, but much more artfully.
Banville and Davies, however, wrote many novels over the course of their careers, and, at least in Davies’ case, his early novels were not as masterful as his later ones. Beautiful Children is a first novel that Bock says took 11 years to write and, presumably, publish, and I can’t help but thinking he would’ve been better served to finish it or have otherwise built his skills elsewhere. Beautiful Children is not a bad novel and perhaps it is even good, but not 11 years good. It has an admirable range of cultural references, from Blake to The Outsiders (a “young adult” novel assigned to me in middle school) to visual media detritus. Like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, Beautiful Children heralds better things to come. Now that Price comes to mind, Lush Life covers ground not dissimilar from Beautiful Children and does it better. And he wrote it in four years. Bock said Beautiful Childrentook so long because it was an “ambitious book, and I just didn’t know what I was doing for a lot of it.” Many novels gestate for a long time, and he rattled some off: Catch-22 stayed with me, but there were many others. Alas, I don’t think Beautiful Children will have the lasting power of Catch-22 or Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, another superb first novel. And in those novels, I doubt anything is “unceremoniously rejected,” as something is at the beginning of 3.3 in Beautiful Children.
Bock seems to have better novels in him; in Seattle, he said, “[Beautiful Children is] a dark book, but I believe the darkness is there to illuminate some of the wonderful parts of humanity […] also, I think there’s some pretty good jokes in there too.” There are, and he was wonderfully candid when someone asked why the dialog seemed so good and, by implication, authentic: “I have no idea.” Although he elaborated, I suspect the real truth came first. Still, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question: sometimes the dialog clicked and sometimes not, like much of the rest of the novel.
In another answer, Bock said he used Ponyboy because he’s an “iconic young adult character” and that he intentionally “recycles—Vegas is a place where they fake the Eiffel Tower and the great monuments of the world and turn them into casinos.” There is “no end to the uses of pop culture,” though he tries not to name drop. The recycling theme is heavy in Beautiful Children and perhaps a topic for some future graduate student. Today, someone looking for pleasure and depth could do worse than Beautiful Children—but they could do better. In “Books Briefly Noted,” the New Yorker has its own take on the novel’s problems, starting with praise and then moving to: “Yet [Beautiful Children] doesn’t quite achieve its intended emotional resonance; there is too much shaky dialogue and improbable Vegas kitsch (breast implants with candle-wax-filled nipples, for a pyrotechnic striptease), and the boy at the center of the plot is thinly drawn and so obnoxious that his disappearance is not unwelcome.” I read “Books Briefly Noted” after writing the first draft of this post, and realized that I structure my commentary the same way the New Yorker did its.
* The best description of I’ve read of this issue comes from James Wood’s How Fiction Works.