(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAY 7, 2005)
The metallic taste of the rain is pleasing to Natalie, which is one of the reasons she likes to walk in the Portland drizzle. Radio static is now preferable to music, which grates. Bright lights, "florescent, flickering so fast no one could tell they weren't steady," provide the ambiance she likes most. She is pure adrenaline - electric - awake all night. Tang - orange flavored water really - fruit roll-ups and beef jerky comprise her diet. She can't remember the last time she ate fresh fruit and vegetables, but likes canned produce, with the slight aftertaste of metal. Home is a lopsided trailer supported by sinking cinderblocks, surrounded by clumps of crabgrass, old bottle caps and scraps of paper, located off a dirt road. Most of all, Natalie is obsessed with Playboy Playmates from the year 1976. She knows their bios by heart, can mimic their photographic poses. That Bicentennial year was a memorable one for the then 12-year-old girl. Now, however, "Forgetfulness disconnected the past from the future, took her in a different direction, and she suspected that was not something she could always deny. For the temptation was not to remember, to really forget, to embrace her best days....moving forward, her energy multiplying, never lapsing."
Fifteen-year-olds Kayla, Leon and Chris skateboard beneath the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon. They are best friends, have been since fourth grade when they were selected for a gifted student program and now they have been inseparable for over five years. They study languages, classical music and play instruments. Kayla is a whiz-kid in math and science, just as she excels, with her sensuous grace, on the skateboard. She is especially fascinated with electricity. Chris is best at literature and history. Leon is good at everything. The three attempt to be intellectually dispassionate, all the while feeling the intense, ever changing emotions of adolescence. They look with disdain at their peers, and what they consider to be the superficial lives of most adults. All three are desperate to figure out a way to live together, "...somewhere, and they would live in a way that no one had lived before..."
Natalie sees Kayla skateboarding one evening and is transfixed by the girl's agility and skill. She approaches Kayla and, after a strange conversation about Playboy's 1976 July Playmate, asks the girl to help her with a special project. Natalie will pay well for copper wire stolen from electrical lines located outside the city. Kayla agrees to do the scavenging if her two friends can be included. The teens already have a purpose for the money, and Natalie fits their image of "an especially promising person" - an off-beat nonconformist. They're psyched. And thus begins a bizarre, chilling, and ultimately dangerous affiliation.
The Bewildered is a riveting novel - please pardon the pun, but it is electrifying! The author's depiction of the three teenagers is on target. They are all three-dimensional, vivid, believable characters. Mr. Rock captures Leon's, Kayla's and Chris' joy for life, their intensity and idealism, their language and the loyalty they share for one another. He also provides insight into their distinct personalities and the growing awareness of their sexuality, which could ultimately divide them.
Natalie is at once bizarre, erratic, yet terribly canny and willing to use others for her own ends, no matter the cost. The other characters are equally eccentric, and with good reason. Steven, the sailor, knew Natalie before, in another lifetime; Victor Elias Machado - an ex-con on post-prison supervision for attempted sexual abuse. Was he guilty or unjustly sentenced because he is one of the Affected? Chesterton, who is obsessed, studying a hidden world and those who populate it in his office at the Shanghai Shanghai in Chinatown. He looks "to access what is most electric in us, most alive."
Rock's landscapes are at times fantastical, surreal. The description of the kids skateboarding through the deserted Portland zoo late at night is phenomenal. His narrative is strong and tightly written. This is a most original, atmospheric novel that will stay with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- This is the Place (1997)
- Carnival Wolves (1998)
- The Ambidextrist (2001)
- The Bewildered 2005)
- The Unsettling: Stories (2006)
- My Abandonment (2009)
- The Shelter Cycle (April 2013)
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About the Author:
Peter Rock was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. He attended Deep Springs College and received a BA in English from Yale. He also held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
He has taught fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, yale, Deep Springs College and the MFA program at San Francisco State University. His stories and freelance writing have both appeared widely. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
He is currently a visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Reed College and lives in Portland, Oregon.