Most bankable fiction writers—those whose books become bestsellers and sometimes movies—rely on conventional storytelling and character development to affect their readers. But there are other, often-more-intriguing authors who rely more on mood or mystery or simply fine writing. They may not reach a wide audience, but they’re adept at subverting our expectations, fracturing our vision, and helping us see life in a new way.
Portland writer Peter Rock has had plenty of writing success—his 2009 novel My Abandonment, about a girl who lives off the grid with her father in an urban forest, was made into a major motion picture (“Leave No Trace”) and subsequently became a bestseller—but in his latest work, in particular, he has tended to be the second kind of author.
In his last two novels—2019’s The Night Swimmers and this year’s Passersthrough (both published by Soho Press)—Rock has used a spare, allusive style to focus closely on a small number of characters in a limited situation while suggesting that there is more going on around them than they or the reader can know, some of it possibly supernatural.
This approach can create a feeling of disorientation, a sense that you’re not understanding something important to the story. But if you release your mind from the need to be certain of everything at every moment, the mood and mystery can take over, allowing you to immerse yourself in Rock’s precise and often beautiful evocations of places, experiences, and sensations.
Even more than The Night Swimmers, set mostly in Wisconsin, Passersthrough, with its often-wild Northwest locales, explores the things we can’t know no matter how much we try, as well as our continued desire to uncover them.
The book begins with what seems at first to be a conventional story: An older man, Ben, and his estranged daughter, Helen, are trying to reconnect. Ben lives in Portland and Helen in California, so she has installed a device in his home that gives her a transcription of anything he says into it, and she speaks to him, in turn, by fax or phone or during the occasional visit.
Their “conversation,” mediated mostly by technology, centers primarily on what did or didn’t happen 25 years ago, when Helen was 11 and Ben sometimes took her into the woods. At some point something traumatic resulted. What it was isn’t entirely clear—to the reader or even the characters.
About all Ben and Helen agree on is that he had her walk blindfolded into the woods, left her overnight in a lean-to, and somehow lost track of her. A week later, she emerged far from where he last saw her. The only specific details we’re given are those of the girl’s rescue, which come courtesy of an old newspaper article Rock inserts into the text. Whatever happened, it caused his estrangement from his daughter to begin.
The rest of Passersthrough is, in many ways, an elaboration on this situation, but nothing is even this plain again. While walking near his house one day, Ben is attacked by a dog and befriended by the dog’s owner, a woman named Melissa who—along with her brother, Cisco—inserts herself into his life. It’s never quite clear whether they’re grifters or sincerely interested in helping him or maybe just the passersthrough of the book’s title.
As the story continues, it becomes less and less certain what perspective we’re seeing things from, and even what reality is. Rock sets several later scenes in the alluring but forbidding landscape around Mt. Hood, presenting it as a shadowy place of beauty, mystery, and danger.
The lean-to reappears, as does a lake from the older story that seems to move around. They’re joined by two children who died in a fire and the mother of a fawn Melissa has killed and carved up. When Ben, who has remained mostly passive throughout the book, makes an act of will near the end, the remaining fragments of story disintegrate further, becoming a series of incantatory images and feelings.
Does it all add up? Rock seems less interested in tying things together than giving us shards we can try to assemble ourselves…or maybe just leave as they are: signs of the possibilities around us and in us, as well as the unknowability of so much in life. Especially other people.
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