It is a truth universally acknowledged that an adolescent geek in possession of red hair must be in want of a friend. Newell Ewing is no exception to the rule. He's the alienated 12-year-old axis on which Beautiful Children, Charles Bock's ambitious, witty and immensely affecting debut novel, turns. Or rather Newell's disappearance into the siren-wailing haze of a Las Vegas night is.
The book begins with his distraught parents, Lincoln and Lorraine, taking a home video still of their son for the police to distribute. From this sucker punch opening, Bock takes us back and forth from the events leading up to Newell's departure, to the emotional maelstrom left in its wake. Into this mystery come a disparate gaggle of randomly connected characters: Kenny (Newell's older, yet no less nerdy, buddy), Bing Beiderbixxe (illustrator of the low-rent comic Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut) and Cheri Blossom (a silicon-pumped pole dancer).
Bock's Vegas is "the crown jewel of a country that has institutionalised indulgence". He is superb at laying down the city's tacky foundations and the broken humanity struggling to construct a life on it. High rollers and diner dudes, barflies and family men fester and seethe in a town that is all promise and no pay off. These lives are floodlit by the merciless glare of "the neon, the halogen, the viscous liquid light" from the casino strips. Equally illuminating is the author's multi-voiced prose, which skips effortlessly from Newell's juvenile jive talk ("he was running with the big dawgs, strutting like a mack daddy, heading for fun") to Cheri's plaintive regrets.
The real heart of the novel, however, lies with Lincoln and Lorraine. Already living in the five-o'clock shadow of their marriage, they now find themselves traumatised by loss. Lincoln is the loyal, wisecracking husband who remains hopelessly in love with his wife. She is "the wall he bounced ideas off and the ear upon which his worries fell; literally, the bottom to his line" and yet his touch causes her to "freeze up like a cheap computer". Their bitter and believable predicament is the book's most darkly comic achievement.
Bock is an alumnus of Bennington College, the liberal Ivy League establishment that brought us Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. While he can spark literary pyrotechnics to match anything they have offered, there's far more warmth on show here. Beautiful Children proves to be a real winner, one created out of nailing the mecca for all losers.