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Beautiful Children Reader’s Guide

By Charles Bock

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Literature has no shortage of difficult central characters or difficult child characters (Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree is one example; William Gaddis’s JR is another). Why do you think Charles Bock, the author of Beautiful Children, made Newell Ewing such a difficult character?

2. What role does the city of Las Vegas play in Beautiful Children? Would the book have worked if it took place in any other city? What does Las Vegas have to do with the idea of the American Dream? How about the idea of the American appetite?

3. Chapter 3 mentions “the conspiracy of human frailty” (page 105). What does this phrase mean in Beautiful Children? How does it apply to the major characters?

4. Let’s face it: This novel is full of graphic violence, drug use, and explicit sex. Do you think a book can delve into such subjects without sensationalizing them? Does Beautiful Children avoid sensationalism, or is its purpose merely exploitative? If you feel the author did attempt to explore adult materials without sensationalizing them, how successful do you think he was in his attempt?

5. Along those lines, Bock has said that he feels there is a direct line running from the American Dream to pop culture through pornography to teen runaways. Do you think this is true? What are the connective tissues?

6. The novel starts with a videotape, and, in fact, two types of videotapes move through the novel. Discuss the role of videotapes and what they represent. What is the significance of the scene on pages 259—260.

7. Discuss whether Kenny is a sympathetic character. Discuss whether it is possible to feel empathy for a character who does what Kenny has done.

8. Did the structure of the novel work? Other novels ranging from William Faulkner’s Light in August to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections have used similar structures. The author has claimed that he always hoped the sum of the book would be greater than any single part. Why did you or didn’t you find this to be true?

9. What moments in Lincoln’s life foreshadow Newell’s disappearance. How complicit are his parents in Newell’s final decision?

10. Ponyboy and Cheri are obvious references to characters from the S. E. Hinton novel The Outsiders. But each character is very different from his or her counterpart in the Hinton book. Why do you think the author did this? In fact, Beautiful Children recycles a number of objects from The Outsiders and uses them for purposes that are in opposition to their original function (an ice-cream truck, for example). Discuss this motif and why it might pertain to Las Vegas in particular.

11. Contrast Newell’s personality with that of the girl with the shaved head. When they meet at the end of the novel, what does it represent for each character? What is the author saying through what happens. Or is he saying anything at all?

12. What do you think happens to Newell? Why do you think the book ends the way it does?

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