By Peter Rock.
Kids aren't supposed to accept money, rides or gifts from strangers, and you would think a scrap torn from an old Playboy magazine would be somewhere on that list. But that's what the spooky, middle-aged Natalie gives Kayla, the high-school-age protagonist of Peter Rock's new novel The Bewildered, when they meet. And Kayla accepts the weird soft-core offering.
Kayla is a fast-talking wunderkind who, along with her friends Leon and Chris, desperately wants to avoid the dull, sleepwalking existences she sees adults living around her. Natalie, however, is a different sort of adult. She shows up one morning when Kayla is skateboarding near Portland's Burnside Bridge and offers her work. Natalie pays Kayla, Chris and Leon to sneak out at night and cut down power lines to harvest the copper wire. Natalie never tells them why, and the three can't help but investigate.
Saying anything more about the plot would set off ear-splitting spoiler alarms, but the roster of supporting characters should give an idea of the novel's creepiness: A six-foot, nine-inch self-described scholar who operates a questionable "scientific" laboratory in the back of a Chinatown tchotchke shop, a triangle-bearded ghoul with little memory who may or may not be a pederast, and a blind woman who forces her almost-boyfriend to walk around with coins pressed to his eyes so he can understand her handicap.
There's always a danger of coming off as contrived when adults write about smarter-than-they-should-be kids or quirk-filled adults, but Rock's characters are surprisingly human and real, which gives the odd plot a firm footing. His fertile imagination is in full swing here as he crafts a fable of disenchanted urban dwellers. It's a philosophical page-turner, if ever such a thing existed.—Jonathan Messinger