The time has come for this runaway novelist

IT'S hard to remember a first novel that's had as big a push as Charles Bock's "Beautiful Children." In addition to landing rapturous press, he's been blurbed by A.M. Holmes and Jonathan Safran Foer. The novel, which centers on the disappearances of a comics-and-video-game-loving 12-year-old, is being hailed as the first great literary novel set in Las Vegas.

Pretty good for a late-blooming author who spent 10 years writing his novel and compares the process to building a bomb in his basement. "Vegas is easy to write about on a surface level," the New York-based Bock, 38, says. "Anyone can go there and fill up a notebook."

But he wanted to paint a picture of the people "who keep the machine working: They don't go to the Strip, they don't see Cher's new show. But when they drive around, every thoroughfare has ads for the strip clubs, for locals-only slot clubs; there's payday loans everywhere."

Bock grew up in between those two worlds, halfway between the mundane and the larger-than-life: The two pawnshops his parents run gave him what he calls "a glimpse of the other side of the glitz."

"A lot of my childhood, I was in the back room eating a candy bar and drinking soda; I would see people coming in to get loans. Though there were also scattered moments when someone's on a losing streak, and they need money really bad, and they think their ring is worth $5,000 . . . . I saw some bad scenes. I'd feel defensive for my parents, but also for these people, seeing them have a tantrum or a breakdown. Or in seventh grade, my grandfather's store was robbed and he was put in the hospital -- someone called the school and took me out of homeroom."

When he moved to render the world he saw, he didn't find many local literary models. "I read Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' when I was 15, and I didn't understand it at all. But one line I probably did say to myself, especially in the second half of my book, is that line, 'And it just couldn't get weird enough for me.'

"I thought, if you're gonna do this, if you're gonna write about porn tryouts, and really go into this world, you can't sugarcoat it -- you can't make a romantic version of a teen runaway."

His unromantic vision of Sin City has led to much of the acclaim. Bock's had fun with his book's launch, but it's been overwhelming, especially after a decade slogging along in odd jobs, writing and otherwise.

"I have a bootleg of a '91-'92 Guns N' Roses concert where Axl Rose gives this six-minute rant/lecture about the press. At the end of it he says, 'They helped kill Jim Morrison with a lot less pressure.' He is being dead serious and does not have the slightest bit of self-awareness. I say to you, 'They helped kill Jim Morrison with a lot less pressure.' And I'm laughing through every second of it."





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