The plot of Peter Rock's mesmerizing, quirky new novel, The Bewildered, is anchored by a trio of 15-year-old skateboarders whose friendship is ripped apart after they fall into a dangerous electric underworld. They're lured into stealing copper wire by a mysterious adult, Natalie, who is herself obsessed with copper wire and Playboy magazine centerfold models. This tangled story about the charged bonds of intimacy unravels against the backdrop of familiar Portland scenes, as characters careen from the Burnside Skate Park to the Oregon Zoo and Oaks Park.
In an interview, the novelist, 37, who teaches at Reed College, talked about the shifting nature of intimacy, weather-related blindness and the shadowy sides of Portland.
WW: Electricity aside, one of the themes of the book might be the idea of transformation.
Peter Rock: You think that you have a way of communicating with someone, and that can change-through illness, drug addiction, mental illness, whatever. The kids are trying to make decisions [about growing up] that avert what they see as a great disaster. It's important for these characters to have responsibility, to be proactive, to actually be smarter than everyone else. Their critique of the adult world is not entirely off-base.
What interested you about using Portland as a backdrop?
There's a real interesting kind of adolescent scene, a skate scene; it's kind of a hip city in that way. The city is in that same hinge as adolescence, trying to decide what it's going to become. And the river is so present. There are just so many locales within this locale.
Once you settled on Portland, how did that transform the story?
I have this idea of watching people with a coat over their head, shielding their faces as they run from building to building. There's a kind of blindness in that. And it seems like there's a kind of half-light in Portland, which makes it seem possible that things can be missed or misunderstood.
What about that title, The Bewildered, which is what one of the kids calls their little clique?
It immediately summons up the confusion that the book is about. In terms of how the kids operate, it's the highest compliment: You should be bewildered if you live in this world.
By Peter Rock (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 303 pages, $23)
Rock will read at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm Thursday, April 28. FREE