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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 4, 2007

3.0 out of 5 stars 126 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, August 2007: In An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New Englan, the quirkiest title for a book since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Brock Clarke lights up the page with the chronicle of a man who, as a teenager, accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, killing two people. ("It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me.") After serving ten years in prison for the crime, Sam Pulsifer moves on with his life, but the emergence of a copycat who's turning New England's literary landmarks to ash puts Sam back in the spotlight and on a quest for the truth. Comparisons to The World According to Garp and A Confederacy of Dunces may be bold, but this heartfelt, funny, and highly entertaining tale promises to be Brock Clarke's breakout book for certain. --Brad Thomas Parsons

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Clarke's fourth book (after the story collection Carrying the Torch) is the delightfully dark story of Sam Pulsifer, the accidental arsonist and murderer narrator who leads readers through a multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life. Growing up in Amherst, Mass., with an editor for a father and an English teacher for a mother, Sam was fed endless stories that fueled (literally and figuratively) the rest of his life. Thus, the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, story and reality become the landscape for amusing and provocative adventures that begin when, at age 18, Sam accidentally torches the Emily Dickinson Homestead, killing two people. After serving 10 years, Sam tries to distance himself from his past through college, employment, marriage and fatherhood, but he eventually winds up back in his parents' home, separated from his wife and jobless. When more literary landmarks go up in flames, Sam is the likely suspect, and his determination to find the actual arsonist uncovers family secrets and more than a bit about human nature. Sam is equal parts fall guy and tour guide in this bighearted and wily jolt to the American literary legacy. (Sept.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 305 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (September 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125517
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125513
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,438,804 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Corinne H. Smith VINE VOICE on September 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Sam Pulsifer is a bumbler. And in true bumbler fashion, he doesn't know he *is* one until he meets white-collar criminals in prison who scoff at such individuals. Sam is an innocent soul: a blissfully naïve young man who accidentally starts a fire in an historic house and accidentally kills a married couple secretly meeting inside it. This is his story, which he begins for us after his 10-year incarceration and the resumption of his life. The narrative is conveyed in first person by Sam himself, written at a time in the future when hindsight is 20/20 and he can keep us interested by providing forecasts in regular asides: "This turned out, much later, to be something of a mistake on my part, but how was I to know that at the time? How are we supposed to recognize our mistakes before they become mistakes? Where is the book that can teach us *that*?"

Sam goes to college, gets a good job, marries well and has two children before the big trouble starts: someone else begins to set fire to other historic homes in New England, and fingers start pointing once again at Sam. But we readers know he didn't do it, don't we? Having read lots of literature in his lifetime but not detective stories, Sam doesn't quite know how to go about investigating the situation and clearing his name. In Sam's case, ignorance is not necessarily bliss; and he unwittingly gets himself in deeper trouble as he goes along. But at least he realizes his limitations: "The truth is that the world is full of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that you're special is just one more thing you've bumbled." Low self-esteem is one of Sam's personal demons.

What sounds like serious business is really a comic tragedy, with many humorous moments found in Sam's assessment of what Life throws at him.
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Format: Hardcover
Think a mini version of Marisha's Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and you'll understand the world that awaits you in Clarke's book. Like Pessl's novel, Clarke's novel has an intellectually sophisticated narrator, who utilizes a wealth of complexly constructed sentences to tell his multilayered tale of coming of age and attempts to solve two mysteries, and who has interwoven all throughout the text countless observations and aphorisms about life.

Specifically, our narrator Sam Pulsifer is trying to unravel the mysterious surrounding his parents' lies and strange behavior and who is attempting to, and then starts succeeding at, burning down homes of famous authors around the New England area. The end result of Pulsifer solving both these mysteries is that he is baptized by obliteration into adulthood; the world he thought he knew disintegrates before his eyes, and he begins to attempt to atone for all the years of not taking responsibility for his actions.

Now granted, Clarke's novel isn't quite the masterpiece that Special Topics in Calamity Physics is, however that does not diminish the fact that this is a novel you should considering reading because it still is very entertaining and moving; it is a well paced jaunt, told with humor, charm, wit, sadness, self-depreciation, and tinged with heartbreak, about a topic I think we can all agree is quite perplexing - Life.
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Format: Paperback
In the interests of full disclosure: Brock Clarke is the brother of one of my coworkers and he came to present at our fledgling Creative Writing conference out of fraternal affection and perhaps a free (steamtabled) dinner. Thus, to counter the really base ad hominem attacks appearing in these reviews, my impression of Brock Clarke, Human Being, is quite menschy.

I also got to hear him read the first chapter of this book at our little conference, so maybe that experience put a better idea into my head of what Sam Pulsifer's voice should sound like: something between gullible and sardonic. Thus when I sat down the other day to read this book, I might have had more preparation to this character's voice than other reviewers.

I think this book *is* hilarious, but I acknowledge that if you're not one for literary allusions, you'll probably hate this book and deride the author as pretentious. There's also some stuff that I think if you haven't been to grad school or worked in a college will also sail right over your head, such as Lees Ardor and her knee jerk antagonism. I think every college worth its salt has a Lees Ardor. (I'm afraid at my school it might be...*me*!) And Harry Potter parents might feel a little defensive after reading this.

The plot is absurd, but not absurdist, and even when I was caught thinking Pulsifer sure was being a moron, I found myself reading along for absolute treasures in prose as some other reviewers have quoted. One of my favorites is when he speculates about his wife whether he's actually made her happy or just too busy to cry.

If you're looking for realistic fiction with deep round rich characters and a suspenseful plot, this will surely disappoint.
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Format: Hardcover
This question is quoted from a scene within the novel itself. This story certainly produces an effect on me, but the effect it produces is not one that I consider to be `good'. It is undoubtedly well-written but it is infuriating. Most of the characters are either incomplete or utterly inadequate. That could be okay: there is a rich subterranean vein of satire flowing just below the surface and just one reliable viewpoint would be enough to make this work for me.

I kept reading, through to the end, in the hope that Sam Pulsifer, the narrator, would stop observing his life and start taking responsibility for the living of it. Or, perhaps, we'd get another viewpoint which would add a dimension of contextual sense. The bit that did appeal to me (and for which I will allocate two of the three stars) was the notion that a number of different characters thought that the burning of various houses occupied by prominent writers in New England might in some way improve their own lives. This potentially clever idea was essentially lost to me in the bumbling fiasco otherwise known as the life of Sam Pulsifer.

Of course, there is an alternative explanation. This might be an incredibly clever book which only a true literary aficionado will enjoy. Each reader will find a different book between the same covers. All things are possible.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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