Two recent debut novels, Joe McGinniss Jr.’s The Delivery Man and Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, are both set in Las Vegas, but is the sin in this city staying young forever or growing up too fast?
The Delivery Man
Beneath the glitz and debilitating heat of McGinniss’ Vegas, most of The Delivery Man’s twenty-something characters are stuck in their self-contained world of drugs, sex, and easy cash. They yearn for a life beyond the glossy landscape they grew up in but are comfortable wasting their youth. The book opens with the inscription on a swanky housing development’s entrance: “Find Yourself Here.” These characters find they’re good at not living up to expectations.
Chase is a 25-year-old painter who, overwhelmed by New York, dropped out of NYU and is now biding time teaching high-school art. He hooks up again with Michele, his sultry childhood crush, now a call-girl working for their pimp friend Bailey. Chase has plans to move to California with Julia, his MBA-candidate girlfriend, but he keeps delaying. Then a few favors for Michelle turn into a lucrative gig as chauffer for Bailey’s teen prostitution ring, run from a suite in the Versailles Palace Hotel and Casino.
Early on, Chase tells his class, “None of you are going anywhere,” but he might as well be speaking to himself. After a fight with a student gets him fired, Chase agrees to chauffer Michele and her girls because it’s easy pay—and part of him wants, even needs, to be around her. Julia has plans for them beyond Vegas, and Chase has dreams of being a successful artist; but going to high-school parties, fetching underage girls from clients, and sulking in the heat seem like easier choices than growing up. The present action is interspersed with scenes from Chase’s past, which reveal his troubled sister Carly’s path towards self-destruction.
McGinniss aims for a Less Than Zero type of vibe. Fast-paced action, short sentences, and choppy scenes flow from one page to the next, but most of the characters remain wooden. Instead of an edgy examination of Las Vegas culture, we get a glimpse of those that exist in its underbelly; they are not glamorous or defining, and even though they aspire to be more, we know it’s not in the cards for them. Chase is tough on the outside but introspective. He has run around with the same deadbeat posse since he was a kid and longs to break free from them, but they are all he knows. Even though the characters are somewhat flat (Michele is hot, easy, but wounded inside; his buddy Hunter is a jerk who falls in love with underage hookers; and Julia is calm, cool, and way too patient with Chase), McGinniss makes us believe in these people and why they cling to each other, despite the baggage that underlies their friendships.
One telling (and great) scene reveals a memory of this posse of so-called friends writing down each other’s worst characteristics to see who would cry first. Chase was deemed a “freak and a loser. Someone whose art sucked ass. Everyone thought his wigger ways were bullshit.” But it’s Michele who gets it the worst. She is “not loved by anyone…and lucky [she is] beautiful, because without that [she’d] be nothing.” Michele is this novel’s Vegas in a nutshell—appealing on the outside, but nowhere you’d want to be for too long. Fly into the strip, do some gambling, party at the nightclubs, maybe see a show, and then move on back to your life, something the characters in The Delivery Man are unable to do. They can be eternally fucked up on gaudy neon streets still “finding themselves,” but how long will it be until their city of excess swallows them whole?
In McGinniss’s city of sin, characters refuse to grow up, but in Beautiful Children, Charles Bock imagines a Vegas whose debauchery forces young people to lose their childhood, and innocence, much too soon. Newell is a hyperactive 12-year-old who flees after skipping curfew with his older friend Kenny; he is never heard from again. His absence, or what caused him to run away from a seemingly normal middle-class life, is at the novel’s core. But Newell isn’t Bock’s only concern. A bevy of other “beautiful children” populate this Las Vegas: they are loners, geeks, vampires, porn stars, worried parents in strained marriages, and teenagers questioning their sexuality. All of them exist of the fringe of Vegas culture; the lights and glitz are all around but dim from their points of view.
The scenes devoted to Newell’s parents are the book’s strongest. Lorraine, a former showgirl, and Lincoln, a former minor league baseball player, cling to VHS tapes of their lost son. Dissecting their own failings in life, they wonder how they may have attributed towards Newell’s desire to leave. The sex had already disappeared from their marriage, and now that their only son has gone, there is little left to hold onto. They retreat into strip clubs or flirtations with a colleague, subsuming the pain they feel in sexual desires.
Bock has poured energy into his prose. But his genuine love for the large cast of characters becomes, towards the novel’s sagging middle, precisely the problem. The central plot—how Newell goes missing—takes a backseat to everyone else’s lives. What begins as detailed description grows excruciating as Bock tells us every facet of their stories and how they become intertwined with Newell’s disappearance.
One stand-out passage follows a “vampire” (another runaway who cleverly names himself Lestat) who wanders away from the strip, facing the pressures of a transient. Reaching a forest, Lestat “stared contemplatively at how moss was growing along the barks of fallen trees, and for a time, he’d felt a deep and abiding tranquility, a peace whose very idea under normal circumstances he would have denied and ridiculed; and the beauty of this peace justified everything Lestat had been through.” The forest is the anti-Vegas, a place brimming with spirituality instead of slots. Like Lestat, all the characters are searching for that pure beauty. Unfortunately, with most passages like this one, Bock shows an affinity for over-reaching metaphors that add more length than substance. He writes well, but Beautiful Children would likely have been more successful if it were 100 pages shorter. At this length, it sometimes reads like an MFA student’s often-brilliant but overstuffed draft.
The book’s other “beautiful children” steer the spotlight away from its primary plot of a lost boy, and showed how this oversexed city has destroyed other lives: There’s the girl with a shaved head who gets raped in a van, the stripper transitioning into porn, Newell’s older buddy who makes an inappropriate pass at him on the night of his disappearance, the fat comic book nerd spending his last dollars on a lap dance. The sheer number of characters pull the novel in too many directions, and by the end even the often-beautiful prose leaves us empty. Nothing feels resolved. The characters still remain missing or disillusioned, and all signs point to the same conclusion: Vegas is not a haven for dreams to flourish, but a place where one can become easily lost. Bock is good at making that point clear, but was the lesson worth the journey?