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For Sin City's lost kids, life is a game of chance

BOOK REVIEW

Beautiful Children / A Novel / Charles Bock/ Random House: 432 pp., $25 The Delivery Man / A Novel/ Joe McGinniss Jr. / Black Cat: 288 pp., $14 paper

January 14, 2008|Tod Goldberg | Special to The Times

Factor in his goofy pal Hunter, a pirate at Treasure Island with a taste for teenage girls, a fiancee getting her MBA at Stanford and the looming ghost of his sister Carly and it becomes clear that this Las Vegas is no playground -- it's a circle of hell.

It's a slick read. McGinniss doesn't spend much time developing emotional relevance for any of his characters -- there's no good or bad here, just levels of horrific degradation. Chase manages to rise above the cast by virtue of his ability to see how awful things actually are -- there is exhilaration found in watching the world come to a slow boil. The book's beginning actually takes place at the action's close, with Chase stumbling through a hotel suite, his face disfigured. The onus is on the author to make the ride getting here believable enough.

And that's where things tend to fall apart for "The Delivery Man." If the essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his actions, one must constantly suspend disbelief while Chase's world spirals into abject danger when he could find safety and security in fiancee Julia just a short Southwest flight away.

Unlike Bock, who so exquisitely details his physical world, McGinniss takes a slipshod approach, substituting names of streets and highways in an attempt to paint a more visceral landscape. There's nothing that says you can only write about places you know, but when dealing with a world so many know at least passably well, such missteps strike an arrow through the author's authority.

What "Beautiful Children" and "The Delivery Man" share -- apart from the obvious thematic portrayal of Las Vegas as "Caligula" -- is, surprisingly, hope. Both Bock and McGinniss flash across the page with firm style, compelling voices and the desire to go deeper than their subject matter. Although neither of their novels has defined literary Las Vegas, both carry the imprint of burgeoning talent, and that is always worth gambling on.

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Tod Goldberg is the author, most recently, of the short-story collection "Simplify."

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