The Las Vegas of Charles Bock's much-hyped first novel, Beautiful Children, is a raw, unforgiving place, ''dappled with dingy motels'' while glittering casinos loom, dreamlike, on the horizon. Into this grimy world a sullen 12-year-old named Newell vanishes one Saturday night, leaving behind, in the desert, a single sneaker. Homicide victim? Runaway? No one seems to know: not the police, not his frantic parents Lorraine, a former showgirl whose career was cut short by her cesarean scar, and Lincoln, a convention-center executive. Caught in the drab confines of a marriage gone stale, they seem unable to help one another, even as they search for and mourn their missing son.
Newell's disappearance is linked to a cast of disparate characters, including Kenny, a troubled older boy; Bing Beiderbixxe, a balding, overweight comic-book artist; Cheri Blossom, a bored stripper; and a gang of homeless kids ''who played tag in graveyards and haunted the matinée shows at two-dollar theaters and made out with one another at random when there was nothing else to do.'' The story, rendered beautifully, even heartbreakingly, plays out at top speed, blocked only by a chunk of chat-room text and a few other odd snippets. Yet the doom enveloping Newell is so palpable it almost suffocates the reader, too. B