Jone$town: Book Review

Geneva Pattison

Jone$town is Robert McDermott’s debut novel. The author is the winner of the TESEO 2019 short story competition and the book is published by Riversong Books. The novel explores all measures of truths and half-truths, as told by the unreliable narrator Matt Lowell and you’ll have to take his word on that. This deceptive thriller deals with secrets at the heart of the wealthy, suburban panopticon-like Jonestown (Riverside Falls), a somewhat self professed haven for perfect neighbours with perfect gardens. Of course, that is not the case whatsoever, but that’s just the first instance of duplicity in the story, as our literary tour guide Matt will tell you. No, it has nothing to do with the Guyana mass cult incident, but in Jonestown, it’s easy enough to spot who would drink the Kool-Aid, it seems.
The central character, Matt, is rather neurotic, with hilarious hot takes on some of his suspicious neighbours relayed in a charmingly blunt style at times. To introduce us to the seeming madness of the gated community, we meet Mr. Zimmermann, the chairman of the Residential Community Association (RCA). As Matt mentions, Zimmermann is a follower of rules that values that of the traditional and is a complete “horse’s ass”. Matt has a rapport with Barney, the cool and collected security man who oversees all the goings on in Jonestown, this is where Matt gets the inside scoop on the politics of the community, and hints of Zimmermann’s nefarious nature. You have the ‘family zone’ to one side of Jonestown, the only section where families with three children may live, in keeping with the rules. To the top of the shamrock shaped community, you have houses mainly occupied by the elderly. Then you have the last section where Matt lives, or Jonestown Proper, as he calls it. It is here, where all the drama begins.
An award winning journalist living in Jonestown Proper writes a ‘truth-bomb’ of an expose on the community, aptly named “Not Quite so Pleasantville”, for the local paper and it all kicks off. The journalist, Jeff Simmons, attracts a lot of negative feedback by pointing out the social inequality represented within the gated community and the farcical nature of the “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude within the gates. Cue a ridiculous court case, the sudden disappearance of a cat (named Gene Hackman) and a whole host of surreptitious happenings, including a possible murder, as the journalist Jeff goes missing. Soon after, Beth, a private detective, shows up asking questions, claiming to have been hired by Jeff to find his cat, but is that really the case?
“Jone$town” is treated as part mystery and part confessional for the main character Matt. Peppered throughout the novel, we get glimpses into Matt’s past and his difficult family life growing up, which is somewhat painted over with disregard in the beginning by the narrator. As the tale progresses, Matt finds himself embroiled in the confusing deceptions of his current situation and we see him open up to the reader about previously shrouded aspects of his childhood. He reveals elements of psychological trauma that have haunted him his whole life, as he tries to figure out the seedy secrets of his present. The reader is brought on a journey through the narrator’s life, from childhood to present day and ultimately, we learn that some secrets need to see the light of day.
Despite being told through the voice of a single narrator, Jone$town is a novel of multiple tales and multiple life stories. The characters are written in such a way that we don’t always get a clear view of their values and motives in life, until the very last page. As in life, we learn that even the most perfect, infallible beings in this circle have their own secrets and struggles. Not everything is as it seems in this book from all aspects of interpretation, the plot, the characters and the character’s history itself are all up for scrutiny. What starts as a relatively feel-good easy reading mystery, soon descends into processing of past trauma, murder, manipulation and plotting from almost everyone involved. This novel has a definite edge, and we can see this through the narrator’s ever changing voice and development as the story plays out. It’s an exciting read, as the plot builds you’re given just enough to keep asking questions. You’ll have to read it and see for yourself, can you ascertain the truth?