Charles Bock's virtuoso riffs are studded with wincingly accurate insights into contemporary alienation, writes Hephzibah Anderson.
For most people, Las Vegas is less an actual city than a thousand-watt image of excess. Even to the hordes of tourists who pass through, it is often no more than a gaudy, neon-splashed mirage in the Nevada desert - a place in which to lose a long weekend and a little cash. Writer Charles Bock spent his childhood in Las Vegas, and his first novel captures something of what it might be like to grow up and to grow old in the city's flashy-trashy embrace. Frenetic and fleetingly inspired, it offers glimpses of the kind of desperation that he witnessed from behind the counter of his parents' pawnshop.
At its centre is an absence. One Saturday night, Newell Ewing, a rebellious 12-year-old, vanishes while out with his older friend, a misfit named Kenny whose idea of the future is "nebulous and large and half-hearted". The police decide Newell must have run away, but from what? Bock has done his research into the plight of America's million or so "lost" children: most are in flight from abuse. Yet Newell's parents have been nothing but loving and indulgent, even after he began morphing from a sweet if hyperactive child to a surly, foul-mouthed adolescent obsessed with computer games and comic books.
As that fateful night's events unfold, the novels flits between then and now and years down the line, between different characters and numerous storylines, as capricious as a roulette wheel. Gradually, the book's various strands begin to converge in a way that is sometimes knowing, sometimes clunky and once in a while feels organic. A girl with a shaven head is determined not to become like her weepy mother, whose life is full of debt and bad men. Then she falls for the pierced, tattooed charms of Ponyboy, an amateur pornographer whose girlfriend Cheri Blossom is a stripper. Cheri in turn enraptures a sociopathic graphic novelist named Bing Beiderbixxe, who earlier on has praised Kenny's sketches of naked women with haunted eyes, copied from his father's stash of dirty magazines. Other characters include a dwarf cashier, a drifter with a thing for Anne Rice's vampire novels and Kenny's aunt, who works in a pawnshop.
Meanwhile, Newell's parents are left to come to terms with the fact that they may never know where their only child ran to nor why. His mother Lorraine, a still-beautiful former showgirl, throws herself into charitable work, first opening their home up to stray cats and then volunteering at a shelter for street kids. His father Lincoln, a sometime baseball player turned sales rep, tiptoes round Lorraine and acquires a taste for pornography. They both make furtive pilgrimages to Newell's abandoned bedroom.
It is sex rather than gambling that drives Bock's Vegas, and it is sex - theoretically the most intimate act between individuals - that is shown again and again to be the most isolating experience in a novel that turns out to be all about isolation. As Bock notes, "When you were alone as much as a runaway was, you lived beneath the crushing weight and breadth of a freedom without restraint or responsibility, that was both empowered and burdened by the realisation that you did not matter". Unfortunately, it occasionally feels as if not even Bock is able to connect with his characters.
This isn't to say he can't write. His virtuoso riffs are studded with wincingly accurate insights into contemporary alienation, and for every soapy cliché, he conjures up an image of sparkly iridescence. Yet rather than following a specific trajectory, this overly long novel sprawls like a bad Saturday night, leaving you yearning for the same things its characters crave - purpose, meaning, a sense of direction out there in the desert.