Here’s what I’m thinking about “Beautiful Children” by Charles Bock.
I’m thinking every agent and editor and publisher had vacated New York for the month of decision-making around this manuscript. It was like “I Am Legend” but only for the literary set.
Somehow Bock got this through, had it printed and the publicity machine cranked up all by himself. How did this get through? And how did he get the glowing reviews, too?
From the New York Times:
“Bock’s evocation of experiences most people will (mercifully) never share, and his depiction of each man, woman and child’s personal mythology is ravishing and raw. Each time he sets the wheel spinning, the mind races, tracking memories of distinct images amid the whir. As in a casino, all sense of time — and of day or night — disappears, as we wait to see where the ball will land.”
“In ‘Beautiful Children,’ Bock’s vision and voice create a fictional landscape as corruptly compelling as Vegas, and as beautiful as the illusions its characters cling to for survival — illustrating what he calls ‘the nobility inherent in struggles that cannot be won.’ ”
What’s strange to me is that Charles Bock can write. There are some sentences here and there in “Beautiful Children” that shows he can write. Like this one: “Air glittered with nicotine and conversation.”
The sentences that follow that one aren’t bad, either: “It dripped with hope and desperation and designer perfumes. Through the vague and blinking distance, Keno ballasts flushed, the digital figures of progressive slot jackpot reader boards were in perpetual motion, the waterfall of coins into metal buckets was resonant, continuous, an orchestral hymn.”
There were a few moments like that one. Key word: few.
I read “Beautiful Children” in a state of disbelief, really, that this had reached publication.
What’s the redeeming value? The nobility inherent in struggles that cannot be won? That’s it? Nobility? Where? Who? I kept waiting, hoping. I liked the way the characters started to bump into each other and intersect. But to what end? Why the pages and pages that go nowhere? Why all the trite lines, like when Lincoln comes to terms with his own mortality? Or Lorraine trying to understand why her son has run away. Big insight: the “flight from home” is “most often an act of self-declaration.”
The Pony Boy and Cherry sections were tedious. Pony Boy to Cherry, encouraging her to join his schemes: “We do this right, we’ll be living the high life.” Ever heard that before? Do you think a character later described as “an indestructible mutant cockroach” would actually think such a thought, let alone utter it?
Characters come and go. In a blur. In a slow blur. Blur? Sorry, wrong term. That would mean things move quickly and they do not. You read and keeping hoping, this will be the character to hang out with, to take you on a ride through the mayhem and depravity, this will be the one who will bring all other plot lines together. But, alas, no.
At one point near the end Lorraine is imagining the life of “grime and pain” for her missing son Newell and she can’t come to grips with it. “There was,” she decides, “only numbness, exhaustion.”