Murder and mayhem in Munro country
People Live Still in Cashtown Corners. Tony Burgess; $14.95 paper 978-1-926851-04-4, 204 pp., ChiZine Publications.
“I want all [of my books] to be read,” Tony Burgess told Quill & Quire reporter Juliet Waters, “but I think there’s some value in shaking off some types of readers. So you distress them a little early in the book so they don’t keep going.” Burgess has built a career writing about zombies and psychotics and other assorted mayhem afflicting small-town southern Ontario, so it’s not hard to imagine ways in which he might “distress” a reader. But while his new novella contains its share of gore and graphic violence, this is not what is immediately distressing about the narration in the early stages of the story.
What is distressing is apparent in the opening sentence:
There is a point at which you find yourself, where, and this is not just what I think but this is the way we are designed to think and it’s this: if the entire universe, and I mean every corner of every atomized corner of infinity; if everything that is isn’t aware of or doesn’t understand my most inconsequential, half-formed thoughts, then there is no chance that the highest-formed acts by the noblest mind are greater than gross self-love.
The speaker here is Bob Clark, the proprietor of a gas bar in Cashtown Corners, and the town’s only resident. Within a handful of pages, Clark will have accosted one of his customers and dragged her body back into his trailer, a sequence that is juxtaposed with Clark imagining himself a passenger on one of the September 11 planes when it crashes into the World Trade Center.
Note the movement in this brief opening chapter. The first sentence is impossible to parse, although it is not unintelligible. Burgess employs a kind of faux-rococo syntactical structure that reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, another writer who took great pains to “distress” his readers. The sentence pretends to a kind of philosophical grandeur, but its mangled syntax results initially in confusion: a reader has to reread the sentence three or four times before its meaning begins to bleed through.
This fractured opening is immediately followed by the first act of violence in the book, an act that appears out of nowhere, and does not even seem rational on its surface. Clark witnesses the woman leave the pumps at the gas station, then stop at the town’s lone intersection, where she waits through several cycles of the light. While she waits, Clark approaches the car, opens the driver-side door and yanks the woman to the pavement. His reason for doing this? “I am not a sentimental man. I am not a particularly empathetic man. But the light has gone from green to orange and she waits.” This is followed by an extended reverie of September 11 – of the plane nosing the skyscraper “like a baby whale floats to its mother’s side and pushes its nose against her as if to say, ‘I’m here, mom'” – by which point it is easy to imagine certain readers having been “shaken off.”
For those who persist, several more murders follow (including a random killing in a grocery store parking lot, the murder of a police constable, and the slaughter of an entire family in its home), and toward the end of the book we are provided with a more comprehensible explanation for Clark’s actions:
I used to have trouble around people. All of my life I had trouble. I struggled to know what to say. I would get dizzy and my head would shatter to pieces. And that’s what happened to me.
Clark admits to being unable to see people’s faces, visualizing them instead as a patchwork of indefinable scribbles. “It’s not much of an explanation,” he says, but on a psychological level his discomfort with conventional society does provide a reader with an answer to the question of why he commits such horrible acts.
Of course, readers who are put off by the contradictions and confusion of the opening chapter will not make it to the explanation, or to the more supernatural final stages of the book, when one of Clark’s victims is reanimated and the two engage in a bizarre debasement of a domestic relationship – the only kind of close human interaction Clark seems capable of. This is entirely consistent with Burgess’s method: by “distressing” his readers up front, he ensures that those who are willing to complete the journey know what they are in for.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Cashtown Corners is a work of exploitation, or a simple genre entertainment. Burgess uses the conventions of horror fiction to craft a deeply serious fable about human connection and the discordant consequences that can result from an inability to successfully integrate into the conventions of polite society. In this regard, Burgess numbers Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner among his literary progenitors.
Strange as it may sound, it is also possible to draw a connection between Burgess and Alice Munro: both are interested in the barely constrained discontent that seethes beneath the carefully constructed veneer of small-town Ontario. Where Munro finds sexual infidelity and emotional repression, Burgess finds violence and bloody death; in both cases, the authors are concerned with what happens to people who are forced to deny their essential selves and cleave to an artificial and conformist way of life.
In Burgess’s hands, Cashtown Corners becomes the dystopian reflection of Munro country, and Bob Clark the rampaging id stalking through it. The moments of tenderness in the book’s final stages are as unexpected as they are poignant, and should satisfy readers who have the stomach or the sensibility to make it that far.