Tony Burgess’s PEOPLE LIVE STILL IN CASHTOWN CORNERS

I first heard of Canadian author Tony Burgess because of the movie PONTYPOOL, a movie I very much enjoyed.

In October, CZP is releasing Burgess’s novella PEOPLE LIVE STILL IN CASHTOWN CORNERS. Boiled down to basics, the premise sounds simple: the book’s narrator, Bob Clark, owns a gas station in Cashtown Corners (and he’s the only resident of the no-horse town). The book is told from his first person POV, picking up a month after 9/11 and on a day Bob becomes a mass murder, one that eludes the police (despite not straying very far from his Cashtown Corners) for quite a long time. Burgess does a yeoman’s job crafting a madman’s voice, but of course, that trick has been done before. But there’s more here, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly how he did it.

Bob Clark talks of having two minds, and attempts to cultivate a second mind because he knows his first has been ruined. The novella operates in a similarly bifurcated manner. For one, I found myself pausing and wondering (even though I knew otherwise) if this was a true-crime book, or even the killer’s actual confession. The fictional (I promise!) crime scene photo insert, which includes the police description of the crime scenes, obviously works toward that end, yet the photos stuck in the middle of the unfinished story add a such a sense of impending doom and unease as they more than foreshadow some of the events to come.

Then there’s Bob Clark and the vulnerable menace he presents. Bob describes the crimes he commits in cold, simple detail, but he describes his interactions with the living and travels to the neighboring towns in complex, fragile sentences and with a terrible beautiful dream logic that we know is broken, but yet, isn’t that broken, which for me, was the most disturbing aspect of CASHTOWN: the idea that this unspeakable, irreparable violence is forever only a few wrong turns of a phrase away; that Bob Clark struggles to find meaning in the images around him and victims he creates, when we know there is none.

All put together, CASHTOWN is a stunning achievement, and is an unforgettable and profoundly unsettling experience. You get that dirty, guilt-ridden thrill you get when rubber-necking an accident scene, or when you read about a terrible tragedy that didn’t happen to you, but Burgess makes sure you realize that the act of looking might just change you and show you something about others (and, of course, yourself) you didn’t want to know.

(FYI: The actual crime that the novella is based on, I’m told, is detailed here)

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