I first misread the title of People Live Still In Cashtown Corners, by Tony Burgess, as People Still Live… , which was confusing because people don't. The population of Cashtown Corners is precisely singular, comprising Bob Clark, proprietor of the local gas bar, and he's determined to keep the number capped. When a stranger arrives in town and dares to overstay her welcome, Bob kills her, marking the beginning of a murderous spree, the kind of tragedy the public will struggle to find any sense in.
Burgess's title is typical of the many tricks and traps scattered throughout his text, quirks in a narrative that at first glance appears straightforward. Upon reflection, however, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. The innocuously named Bob Clark - with his uncomfortably familiar way of addressing the reader, who scrapes tar from the side of his shoe to "send a commanding ripple outward through all things" - is clearly unhinged.
Yet it is his voice, with its plain-spoken common sense, that draws us into the story and is so convincing that we almost don't question the peculiarity of his perspective. Until the murders begin to multiply, of course. But even these random killings make sense in a certain context. According to Bob, people are the problem: "They make us nervous and then we kill them," simple as that. Simple and banal. All things considered, Bob is a pretty regular guy.
He is also careful to be always in control of himself, of his surroundings and, in particular, of the story he tells. "Let me set this up properly for you," he says before recounting his first murder. The entire narrative is similarly Bob's construction, though his authority is intriguingly undermined in a few places.
In imitation of the true crime genre, 12 pages of photos are included in the novel - shots of Bob's victims "in happier times," and of the crime scenes - and their captions reveal details that undermine his story. Some sloppy errors also appear in the text, but with such uniformity that they may be the product of Bob's consciousness, just part of the strange and fascinating puzzle the entire book becomes.
As with his 1998 zombie novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, Burgess turns small-town Ontario into a horror show, his use of real places and people blurring the line between fact and fiction. Such blurring, as well as the book's gory details, makes for a most disturbing read, but moments of dark humour serve to lighten the mood.
In addition to the small-town satire, Burgess has endowed Clark with a hilarious penchant for understatement, with him at one point admitting: "I used to have trouble around people."
One really can't deny that Bob sums himself up just right. But just as in the bucolic locales depicted in its pages, nothing in People Live Still In Cashtown Corners is as simple it seems.
Kerry Clare blurs fact and fiction in Toronto.