Rock, Peter 1967–
Rock, Peter 1967–
ADDRESSES: Office—Reed College, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland, OR 97202.
CAREER: Writer and teacher. Has taught at Deep Springs College, Deep Springs, CA, Yale University, New Haven, CT, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Reed College, Portland, OR, associate professor of creative writing, 2001–.
This Is the Place, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Carnival Wolves, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1998.
The Ambidextrist, Context Books (New York, NY), 2002.
The Bewildered, MacAdam/Cage (San Francisco, CA), 2005.
The Unsettling (stories and a novella), MacAdam/Cage (San Francisco, CA), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Epoch, Tin House, Zoetrope, and ZYZZYVA.
SIDELIGHTS: Peter Rock's novels and short stories focus on life's misfits and their attempts to find connections with each other and with the rest of the world. His first novel, This Is the Place, set in a Nevada gambling town just across the state line from straitlaced Utah, deals with the obsessive love of an aging blackjack dealer for a teenage Mormon girl. Rock followed that title with Carnival Wolves, which follows a burned-out security guard and his dog as they meet a succession of bizarre characters while traveling across the United States. The Ambidextrist centers on a homeless young man who becomes an unwittingly malignant influence in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy. The Bewildered also focuses on adolescents, in this case three gifted, outcast fifteen-year-olds living in Portland, Oregon.
In This Is the Place, the dealer, commonly called "Pyro," becomes fixated on nineteen-year-old Charlotte, who has left Bountiful, Utah, for the gambling resort of Wendover, Nevada, in search of a less circumscribed life than was available among the devout Mormons of her hometown. Pyro is old enough to be Charlotte's grandfather, and was once the lover of her aunt. Eventually she loses interest in him and departs with a race-car driver, going to Las Vegas and then Salt Lake City, but Pyro, unable to forget her, tracks her down. "The novel we read is the story he tells to justify the terrible crime he commits in the name of love," related Nancy Pearl in the Library Journal. A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised Rock's "vivid vignettes" of Nevada and Utah, but deemed the story "forced," with "an uncertain focus" and much left unclear. A Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Rock "misses out on the humanity to be examined in this ill-fated romance." Pearl, however, maintained that the novel offers "an intriguing plot, and fully nuanced characters."
The central character of Carnival Wolves, Alan Johnson, is bored with his life as a museum security guard in upstate New York. He decides to take off on a crosscountry trip, accompanied by a Dalmatian that he had aided after it fell, but that belongs to someone else. Along the way Alan and the dog meet a sadistic taxidermist, a mad chimpanzee, a wife fleeing a polygamous marriage, and an assortment of other strange characters, including an offbeat young woman who finally offers him an emotional connection. Pearl, again reviewing for the Library Journal, considered Carnival Wolves "disappointing" after This Is the Place. While "Rock does a superb job of conveying a sense of paranoia and uneasiness," she wrote, ultimately Alan and his story are uninvolving. Booklist critic Brian Kenney also saw little of interest in the protagonist or his encounters, but allowed that the novel is "well-written" and that Rock "is definitely an author worth watching." In the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, Harriette Behringer faulted Carnival Wolves for sensationalism and superficiality, observing that, despite occasional "flashes of insight," the narrative "gives way to a mere freak show" and "only shocks." A Publishers Weekly commentator, on the other hand, found in the book "considerable depth of characterization and an unerring sense of detail and atmosphere" and called it "a beautifully written, funny, deliberately twisted travelogue."
The Ambidextrist's protagonist, Scott, is a vagabond who earns his living by taking part in medical experiments. He drifts back to his hometown, Philadelphia, with the intention of building a more mainstream sort of life. He seeks to establish friendships with Ruth, a young woman who works in airline security, and her teenage brother, Terrell, who has become involved with a gang. Scott's comment to Terrell about the need to test friendship leads Terrell and his friends to test one another's loyalty in increasingly dangerous and violent ways. Joshua Cohen, writing in the Library Journal, found Rock's characters unsympathetic; because of that, he wrote, "the book never reaches its potential." A Publishers Weekly critic also had reservations about the characters, remarking that the "direct and unsentimental" depiction of them "distances the readers from Rock's protagonists." The upside of this approach, the critic reported, is its "documentary immediacy." The reviewer concluded: "The novel is best appreciated for its taut, spare prose, which skillfully evokes the isolation of listless lives."
The Bewildered examines a group of Portland, Oregon, residents who have been mentally changed by near-death electrocution experiences. One of these changed people is Leon, a teenager who, along with two of his friends, is hired by an eccentric woman named Nancy for the highly dangerous and illegal job of stealing scrap copper from electrical wires. Leon's friends, Kayla and Chris, try to figure out what happened to Leon when he was electrocuted and what is behind his and Nancy's odd behavior, but their investigation, as reviewers noted, is slow and unfocused. The book "is rather hermetic, shut off from the machinations of the workaday world, much like its neurotic little clutch of characters," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Yet, despite that, the reviewer continued, The Bewildered is "elegantly paranoid." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also noted the novel's lack of "tightness. But," the reviewer wrote, "Rock does a fine job fostering a sense of foreboding."
Rock's first short fiction collection, The Unsettling, gathers thirteen similarly eerie and bleak tales, including "The Silent Men," about a waitress who becomes fascinated by two diners who come in every week, order food, do not eat it, and do not speak; and "The Sharpest Knife," in which a man breaks into his young neighbor's bedroom to write things in her notebook. The tales "are told in heartbreaking tones," Debi Lewis commented in Booklist, "and it is difficult not to picture the scenes Rock describes." A Kirkus Reviews contributor also praised the book as "a solid representation of this writer's mature work, notable for its detached intensity."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 1998, Brian Kenney, review of Carnival Wolves, p. 1969; February 1, 2005, Michael Cart, review of The Bewildered, p. 943; February 15, 2006, Debi Lewis, review of The Unsettling, p. 49.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1997, review of This Is the Place, p. 251; January 15, 2005, review of The Bewildered, p. 80; February 15, 2006, review of The Unsettling, p. 156.
Library Journal, March 1, 1997, Nancy Pearl, review of This Is the Place, p. 104; July, 1998, Nancy Pearl, review of Carnival Wolves, p. 138; December, 2001, Joshua Cohen, review of The Ambidextrist, p. 175.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 23, 1998, Harriette Behringer, review of Carnival Wolves.
Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1997, review of This Is the Place, p. 64; June 22, 1998, review of Carnival Wolves, p. 83; December 10, 2001, review of The Ambidextrist, p. 52; February 14, 2005, review of The Bewildered, p. 51; January 30, 2006, review of The Unsettling, p. 42.
Peter Rock Project, http://www.peterrockproject.com (April 9, 2006).
PhiladelphiaWeekly.com, http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/ (February 8, 2001), Maura Johnston, "City Writs."
Reed University Web site, http://academic.reed.edu/ (April 9, 2006), "Creative Writing: Biographies of Professors."