As the manager of a bookstore located in the middle of a bustling Upstate New York metropolis in the 1990s – a city where a large psychiatric center would regularly let loose its outpatients in the afternoon to wander the streets – I remember being involved in my fair share of conversations with numerous bookstore customers that may not have been completely sane.
I vividly recall approaching an elderly woman who kept fingering an illustrated horse encyclopedia that was being featured on a gift book table and mumbling to herself. When I asked her I could be of assistance, she pointed to the book again and began telling me in meticulous detail how breeders of thoroughbred horses, devote followers of Anais Nin’s literary works, and certain residents of the city of Horseheads, New York, were somehow connected to an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the JFK assassination. She was articulate and composed and when she was finished speaking, she simply left the store and disappeared in the crowds passing by on the sidewalk outside. I just stood there for a few moments, stunned. Was this woman an outpatient at the psych center or was she some mystic who happened to grant me access to a tidbit of arcane knowledge?
Conversations like this have always fascinated me in some dark way – dialogues with people who may very well be existing in an entirely different reality that I am. Along those same lines, I’m obsessed with seeking out and reading books by writers who have that same "am I mad or transcendentally enlightened?" narrative voice: Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, Stepan Chapman, Rudy Rucker, Stephen King, Richard Kadrey, Chuck Palahniuk, etc.
The opportunity came recently when I stumbled across People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, a short novel (just more than 200 pages) that was recently released by Toronto-based ChiZine Publications. It’s the story of Bob Clark, the unassuming owner of the Sunoco station in Cashtown Corners – essentially an intesection in southern Ontario – who has trouble interacting with other people. The novel begins as Bob services a woman driving a silver 2005 Corolla. He fills up her gas tank, cleans her windshield, and then he pulls her from the car and kills her.
A little later, Bob nonchalantly explains to a teenaged kid named Jeremy who works at the station part-time what he did and shows him the corpse, which he stashed away in his trailer out back:
“It is what it is. That’s her car out there and, well, that's her right there.”
Jeremy looks at the woman again. There's a few flies dipping in and out of the back of her skull.
“What happened to her?”
I feel a little uncomfortable. I wasn't really planning to lay it all out like this.
“Well, I hate to say this but I killed her.”
Jeremy nods slowly. He's starting to take this in and I'm relieved.
“Don't ask me why. Anything I say is just gonna sound ridiculous.”
I rub my hand in my hair. I want to appear frustrated.
“Things just got out of control...”
After spending a few days in the house with the bodies, he decides to bring them outside and hide them in compost heaps out back:
“I prop the kitchen door open. The bodies have their own little carry bags. And the route is conveniently marked by a wide red line. I will clean up outside when I’m done. Or not. Let the sun and the flies and the creatures of the night suck the pudding up until they’re full. That’s what I’ll do…”
During Bob’s time in the house, he falls into delusion and contemplates his life, the inevitable consequences of his actions, and experiences numerous revelations, namely how to finally live his life...
Reading this novel by Tony Burgess was very much like my bookstore conversations with customers who may not have been completely sane – and after finishing People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, you won’t know whether to applaud Burgess’ impressively large literary cohones or arrange to have him committed to the nearest mental health facility…
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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