“Work with what you know,”—always good advice regardless of your area of expertise. In “The Monster of Twenty Mile Pond,” (2014, Flanker Press) Bill Rowe heeds that advice, choosing to cast the main character as a lawyer whose responsibilities strain beyond the normal boundaries, whether they be set by family, friends or colleagues. In fact one might even be caused to wonder about the degree to which this work of fiction is semi-biographical. After all, the main character even has the same first name as does the author. I wonder if I was the only one who found himself hearing Bill Rowe’s own voice each time Bill McGill said anything in the book!
Bill is a person who’s seemingly offhanded approach belies his true self—someone who is well-intentioned, deliberate and, whenever humanly possible, diplomatic; always solidly behind what he believes in most and unwilling to compromise core values, regardless of the cost. Some time ago in his past he witnessed something, the memory of which has mostly remained dormant, despite it being the trigger of a series of events that significantly affected the remainder of his life. Recently, though, events close to home have caused him to revisit that almost-forgotten incident. As things start to unfold he is led, increasingly, toward an unbelievable set of conclusions, ones that will require an equally unconventional course of action.
“Wait a minute, which Bill are you talking about, Bill McGill, the character in the story, or Bill Rowe, the author?”
“McGill, of course. Why on earth would you think otherwise?”
Yes, there’s a monster. The story is deliberately crafted, though, that you’re left second-guessing what’s going on. “Is there another way of interpreting all of this?” you, along with McGill, are left wondering. No matter; the story charges ahead and you’re never left mulling for too long before something else happens.
At least that’s how it was for me. I picked it up a day or so after buying a signed copy at Costco, expecting to spend a leisurely hour before bedtime reading some of it and instead found myself unable to put it down until it was finished. Bill Rowe’s books seem to have that effect on me. Last year I had a similar experience with “The Premiers: Joey and Frank.” At least I managed to get two nights out of that one, though.
The ring of local familiarity that runs through the book is worth noting. There’s a continuum that exists between the homespun and the alien, with most books finding themselves somewhere along that line but not too close to either end. Even SciFi novels have considerable ties back to the familiar of course; perhaps there’s a common language and certainly there’s always something about common values, whether they’re what, in the end, saves the day or whether they’re what the book leaves you yearning for, in the end, something instantly recognizable is always present to anchor you.
For those of us who have grown up in this tiny province, the majority of our bookish experiences lean slightly away from the familiar, though. Our culture is unique and since most books are set somewhere else the immersive experience is akin to taking a trip, even if only to the nearby mainland; it’s still “otherly.” Authors can choose to make of this what they will. Some will just leave out the minor details entirely, allowing the establishments and places to remain anonymous or maybe just invent fictitious ones. Other authors may instead choose names that would be familiar to a large number of people, choosing more well-known places.
This book, however, tends to localize. Things are real—communities, streets, establishments and, in a couple of instances, even names. While the sprinkling of nearby, well-known items will no doubt attract local readers, eager to see bits of home in print I found it a bit off-putting. I was taught that details have to count, else you don’t include them:
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” —Anton Chekhov (From S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.)
Granted, that’s advice that I rarely heed myself. Maybe it’s just that Bill Rowe is taking a cue from the successful, locally-produced TV series “Republic of Doyle” which has a tendency to do the same, much to the locals’ delight. What odds.
Perhaps the most engaging thing about the book is how it keeps you suspended right there between belief and disbelief. Is there/is there not a monster? If so, is it acting with thoughtful intent or merely following nature’s more base instincts?
But then there’s also the question that continues to nag me still, days after consuming the book, “What’s the real monster?” Is it Bill’s own blinkered view of the world, one that puts him squarely in the role of “fixer?” Alternatively, could it be the stubborn pursuit of justice in the service of nothing more than a half-baked government policy? Maybe neither but, instead, the haunting spectre of a real-life series of events and subsequent cover-up (yes, real names are mentioned), the discovery of which still continues to affect lives in our province?
As with any good story, there’s plenty there for you to reach the conclusion that best meets your own biases. Read the book yourself and make up your own mind. Be warned, though, that, like me, you might find yourself unable to put it down until it’s done.
As a closing note it’s worth pointing out how easy it is to imagine Alan Hawco cast as Bill and Gordon Pinsent as Hughie For my part, I’m hoping Mr. Rowe decides to recast his story as a screen play. That would be a movie I’d go to see more than once.