The kids are not right

First-time novelist and native Las Vegan Charles Bock, 37, is enjoying unusual literary success with the ambitious <i>Beautiful Children</i>.

First-time novelist and native Las Vegan Charles Bock, 37, is enjoying unusual literary success with the ambitious Beautiful Children.

In his debut novel, Beautiful Children, Las Vegas native and pawnbroker scion Charles Bock has written a wild but compassionate character study of seedy Sin City characters. It is an epic story of the early 21st century trying to define itself while posturing in the mirror like a self-conscious, over-medicated and afflicted 8-year-old with ADHD. And it’s just as funny.

PT: Summarize the book.

CB: A 12-year-old boy named Newell Ewing goes out one Saturday night in Las Vegas and never comes home. My novel follows what happens to him on the night he disappears and the next year in the lives of his parents after he goes missing. Along the way, the narrative includes the stories of people whose lives intersect with Newell on that fateful night. These include his best friend, an older kid named Kenny, an awkward artist; a comic book artist named Bing Beiderbixxe; the ambitious stripper Cheri Blossom and her punked-out boyfriend Ponyboy. Gradually, the stories expand into the worlds of adult entertainment and also teen runaways. There’s also hope and some jokes.

PT: How did you get into writing?

CB: As a little, little one my mom read to me a lot, and when I was small, I devoured the Encyclopedia Brown series and books like that. I had two older brothers: One was into football and comics, the other into basketball. And when I was around the age of 12 or 13, I was a serious comic book geek. Later, I tried and failed miserably at playing basketball, but became addicted to sports pages, specifically sports columnists like Jim Murray and Scott Ostler. But even as an undergrad, I wasn’t into fiction; [I] didn’t even read the books that were assigned in lit classes. It wasn’t until after college, working in a clothes store in L.A., that I started reading contemporary fiction. And that saved and changed my life. I was blown away by what writers were able to do with plot and character. Worlds of possibilities opened up to me at that point, and I started wanting to try to create the same magic Rick Moody, or David Foster Wallace or William Vollmann made look so effortless on the page.

PT: Does Vegas bleed into your writing?

CB: My parents have a pawn shop in downtown Las Vegas. There’s now three generations of my family who have operated pawn shops in Las Vegas. Obviously, that influenced me. I also don’t think you can grow up seeing all the glitz and glamour and not have it influence you. In my case, I think both the glitzy and the broken sides of the city had a huge effect. They helped shape just how I see the world and how I move through it. Having said this, I tried to avoid writing about Vegas when I started grad school. While I appreciated the bizarre and unique aspects of Vegas and kind of basked in its reputation as a place where normal standards of behavior don’t apply, I also was trying to mentally move away from it, to write about worlds and places that wouldn’t make the pieces thinly veiled biography or stories about my family. I tried to place my work in places I got to know after I left Vegas, for example a short story set in New Orleans, where I had spent some time, or New York, my new home, or even somewhere I’d never been before, like Moscow. The first short story I ever published, actually, took place in Moscow, and when one editor saw it she called me, thinking I was Russian. She wanted a book of Russian short stories, and I had to tell her that I’d never been to Moscow and had made up the story and had to study a Fodor’s travel guide to get the streets right.

PT: Leaving Las Vegas has helped you as a writer?

CB: I think distance and perspective helps any writer. I started this book when I was around 25. I left Las Vegas as a college student trying to find himself. This book was written over 11 years, and during that time I had a lot of crappy jobs and did just enough to keep my head near the water line, all so I could hoard time to write. I am of the school that says you can do it fast or you can do it right.