By Charles Bock
John Murray, NZ$39 | Reviewed by Sam Gaskin

CHARLES BOCK’s debut novel Beautiful Children follows the misfortunes of runaways and parents, sex peddlers and cartoonists, all damned and decomposing at different rates in the author’s home town. Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas.

Bock’s depiction of Vegas probably isn’t endorsed by the city’s tourism board. Over the course of one evening – the night 12-year-old Newell goes missing – we’re introduced to Daphne, a ketamine addict with a pregnant belly “the colour of uncooked bird”; a callous porn actor who injects something to harden his oversized cock; and a tragically suggestible stripper named Cheri Blossom who has flammable tits, “the dyed stubs of red wax and tiny red wicks … packed into her surgically hollowed-out nipple casings.”

Raised in sin city, Newell senses that Saturday nights should be mischievous and fun, but with only nascent senses of humour and morality, as well as an attention disorder impairing his judgment, he’s ill equipped for the night ahead. When his mother Lorraine asks him what Newell and an older teen have planned, Newell dismisses her concern with characteristic cruel sarcasm: “Burgers, then anal penetration.”

As the evening develops and characters demonstrate their full potential for debasement, scenes featuring Newell’s parents accelerate forward in time – a year passes without word from him – but they put no emotional distance between themselves and that night. Instead, Lorraine watches nondescript home video of Newell compulsively, paralleling her increasingly estranged husband’s addiction to x-rated videos.

For Bock, loveless sex is the most potent signal of compromised humanity. In the same way Cheri’s boyfriend tries to force her into a porn “tryout”, the full extent of Lorraine’s vulnerability is established when an ageing crooner exposes himself to her, expecting sex in exchange for an appearance at a charity dinner. Lorraine rebukes herself for “Trotting her need around, naked… letting them ogle it…”

Beautiful Children is bleak, like watching Requiem for a Dream, but dorkier than that, less stylish. It’s as filthy as an Irving Welsh novel, but lacks the wit. Worse, the characters seem so exclusively irredeemable, at best hazily perceiving that they’ve hit bottom, that it undermines both the book’s drama and its realism.

“Each of us struggles against the pain of the world,” Bock writes, “even as we are doomed to join it.” Even accepting such dull fatalism, aren’t some of us equally ‘doomed’ to developing greater self-awareness and improving our lot?