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No turning away from it

| Sunday, March 2, 2008

Charles Bock cannot look away from what other people shun.

He is in Portland, Ore., where he is promoting his first novel, "Beautiful Children." It is 7 a.m. on the Pacific Coast, an ungodly time for an interview, but Bock is wide awake, lucid and eager to talk about one of the year's most heralded books.

Set in Las Vegas, "Beautiful Children" is about runaways -- and parents whose lives are torn apart when their 12-year-old son goes missing.

But Bock stops, hesitates, when he thinks about the prior night's reading. He mentions a kid with a dog, bumming change across from the bookstore. He talks about a woman at the reading whose niece ran away and ended up dead.

"It's out there," Bock says. "There's no way around it, and it's fine if some people don't want to look. It's completely their choice. But I needed to look, and hopefully I created a piece of art that helps other people see things the way I might see it."

That the novel is in bookstores is, if short of a miracle, nevertheless a literary upset. When Bock started the novel 11 years ago, he admits he was an "angry young man writing an angry book." Agents found promise in the work, but not enough to take Bock on as a client. And Bock admits he was then too stubborn to admit the writing was flawed.

"The style was just gaudy to the point of it being unreadable," he says. "If my prose is gaudy now, what it was is just embarrassing. There was an attitude of 'I'm going to show you' and a chip on the shoulder."

Five years into the process, after finishing a second draft, Bock faced a pivotal moment. When he was told the characters were not worth caring about, he was forced to re-evaluate why he was writing the book. He realized the problem was too much Charles Bock and not enough attention to the story he was trying to tell.

"That was a huge moment, artistically, for me," he says. "In all kind of ways, it opens things up. It becomes a better book when it goes from being about an angry 12-year-old who disappears, and the light goes on and I ask the question, 'What happens to his parents when the kid's gone?' The scope changes unbelievably."

Bock spent another six years completing "Beautiful Children." The novel features Newell Ewing, the aforementioned runaway; his distraught parents, Lincoln and Lorraine; and a cast of characters from the streets of Las Vegas, some involved in the porn industry, the seedy underbelly of runaway life.

The writer, a native of Las Vegas who now lives in New York City, did his due diligence, talking to street kids and reading police reports about missing children and news accounts of runaways. It became apparent to Bock that the urge to escape is one of the great themes in American literature -- notably in Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" -- but also one that requires the right tone and balance.

"It was so important to get this right," he says, "because no one cares. Some teenager leaves home and looks like he wants to be a punk rocker, has facial studs, and you see him on a sidewalk. Considering everything happening in the world, it's easy to see that with a level of indulgence. I just knew if I was going to do this, I have to do justice to the subject and to all the people I talked with."

Bock thinks the America of Kerouac -- and certainly Twain -- does not exist anymore. Instead, there's a more dangerous landscape that beckons to runaways, as typified by his sometimes horrific portrait of conditions on the streets.

The question that almost always gets asked, however, is where are the parents• It was a trap that Bock initially fell into, and one that ignores a basic reality. Sometimes parents can do everything right, and a child will still wander, whether from a need to rebel or because of an in-bred sense of adventure.

That is why Bock re-cast Lincoln Ewing as "a decent guy with a good job who is smart and a good man, and not 'I'm gonna find my son and get a gun and take to the road.' He has a job and he has a career and he's doing everything he can to find his kid and everything he can to keep his marriage together.'

While "Beautiful Children" has been highly praised, at almost every public appearance his good fortune is questioned. Bock says he thinks his questioners must be frustrated fellow writers, and he always wishes them good luck with their work.

But another, more benign benefit has started to happen. The book is being picked up by readers of all ages, and one of Bock's fondest wishes is that "Beautiful Children" might serve as a way to bring generations together.

"This wasn't an intentional idea," he says, "but later it seemed that it's a nice thing that the parents of a 20-year-old could respond to it and to certain characters in a way where the 20-year-old could respond to the girl with the shaved head. The 20-year-old may come away with more appreciation of his parents, and the reverse might hold true also, where the parents go, 'Yes, someone captured this.' And also they may remember things about their youth and what's similar and what's different about what their kid is going through."

Additional Information:

'Beautiful Children'

Author : Charles Bock

Publisher : Random House, $25, 417 pages

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Charles Bock's 'Beautiful Children' is the rare novel that is better than its advance praise. The interlocking stories of the family of a missing child and runaways, set in Las Vegas, have a burning, searing intensity, and Bock's descriptions of Vegas nightlife are by turns mesmerizing and horrifying. But the characters -- Newell, the acerbic, bratty missing child; his slightly older friend Kenny, a fledgling artist; and Cheri Blossom, a stripper who is thrust into an untenable situation -- are the reason readers will care, and care very much, about this splendid, riveting novel.

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