Beautiful Children, by Charles Bock (John Murray, £14.99. Order for £13.49 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897)

A compelling tale of loss set amid the tawdry end of the American Dream
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The Independent Culture

Throughout Charles Bock's distinctive debut, people constantly ask: "What can you do?" or, "What do you want me to do?" The book concludes with the thought: "What am I supposed to do?" In this Las Vegas novel pinned to the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy, there's not only fear and loathing, but also bewilderment.

"Intense emptiness", "loneliness", "deep inner unhappiness": these feelings grip Bock's characters. From the pregnant teenage runaway, and the middle-class couple Lincoln and Lorraine, whose son is missing, to the stripper whose showstopper involves candles on agonisingly inflated breasts and the trailer-trash boy who doesn't know he's gay, Bock sees pathos in their helpless "struggles against the pain of the world". He confirms Scott Fitzgerald's view that "life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat". Like Fitzgerald, he looks at the souring of the American dream in a time of miracles and excess. Vegas is the perfect setting. Where else can you change your luck in an instant and "set right a lifetime of disappointments"? This world of dream and nightmare, with its casinos, sex clubs and feral youngsters, is set against an America of yellow ribbons and flags, a freefalling economy and chatroom fantasies.

The novel kicks off with a home video of the lost boy. Hyperactive and brattish, Newell is also vulnerable and needy. Why he runs from parents who love him is never fully explained. Bock plays with the novel's timescale, interweaving the events leading up to this inexplicable moment with what happens after.

Like a character who wants to "write down everything he had ever seen", Bock goes for overload. There's a wearying amount on the queasier aspects of porn and too-much-detail-already about the tat, clit-rings and cutaway nipples on display. But while Bock can strive towards the meaningful in pretentious prose, his dialogue whips along and, when he lets the emotional truth come through, he's very good.

This is a painfully well-observed account of loss – both loss of innocence and physical loss. Newell convinces, as do his parents with their distress and collapsing marriage. Equally believable is Newell's older buddy, the hapless, scrawny, Kenny, whose split-second of inappropriate physical contact precipitates the book's crisis.

If Bock makes us tourists in this squalid milieu, it's because we too belong to "the conspiracy of human frailty".