November 6, 2009
I finally read Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, one of those splashy debut novels the NYT slobbered all over last year. I waited until it was readily available in the library, just as I had Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, so put off am I by people I think no longer have to work and can just write; I am constitutionally incapable of contributing to their royalties. (And must they also be so fresh-faced?) I know this reveals a certain poverty of spirit, but it’s a private little spite that causes no measurable harm to others. I think I’ll work on my explosive temper first, then take a long look at my relationship to food.
When I do finally sneak a free peek at a book post-splash, it’s with the sincere hope that it really won’t be of much account. How gratifying when Special Topics turned out to be a thin gruel of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, with some drawings thrown in, as if to say, “But this one has drawings!” Whither the sexual intrigue, the bacchanal bloodletting, the thousand or so extra pages of gravitas?
But Beautiful Children. I was getting a migraine that afternoon and downed some caffeinated headache powders, which relieved the pain but kept me up all night, and the novel made for fine company. Set in Las Vegas (though, thankfully, rarely in casinos–to me the only thing more dull than reading about casinos is going to them), it mostly orbits an obnoxious twelve-year-old boy who goes missing and the people overlapping that: his parents, the young man last seen with him, and the stray punks and homeless kids whose ranks he may have joined. I liked it the way I like a Richard Price novel, with a recurring mild surprise that the story has captivated me against expectations, and a sense of even the basest character bathed in the golden glow of the author’s attentions.
Reading all night is sort of like watching TV all night–enjoyable in the moment, though not much lingers past a slight quease from having glutted oneself. It has become a rare pleasure for me to give over a night of sleep to a book. Until this recent headache-powder-fueled stint, I’m not sure I’ve done it since I had children. The closest I came was in the weeks following my sons’ births, when I was up around the clock anyway, and they were still manageable enough for me to nurse and hold open a book. What strange juxtapositions I’d choose: a biography of Genghis Khan, then a holocaust memoir; Gibson and Sterling’s steampunk The Difference Engine, followed by Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay, which shocked the hell out of everyone when it won the National Book Award in 2004, not because it wasn’t a terrific book, but because it had been virtually invisible until that moment, reportedly having sold fewer than two thousand copies. I have to root for a book with a backstory like that.