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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England Paperback – September 2, 2008
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From the Inside Flap
Sam Pulsifer, the hapless hero of this incendiary novel has come to the end of a very long and unusual journey, and for the second time in is life he has the time to think about all the things that have and have not come to pass.
The truth is, a lot of remarkable things have happened in Sam's life. He spent ten years in prison for accidentally burning down poet Emily Dickinson's houseand unwittingly killing two people in the process. He emerged at age twenty-eight and set about creating a new lifealmost a new identityfor himself. He went to college, found love, got married, fathered two children, and made a new startand then watched in almost silent awe as the vengeful past caught up with him, right at his own front door.
As, one by one, the homes of other famous New England writers are torched, Sam knows that he is most certainly not the guilty one. To prove his innocence, he sets out to uncover the identity of this literary-minded arsonist. What he discovers, and how he deals with the reality of his discoveries, is both hilariously funny and heartbreakingly sad. For, as Sam learns, the truth has a way of eluding capture, and then, when you finally get close enough to embrace it, it turns and kicks you in the ass.
In the league of such contemporary classics as A Confederacy of Dunces, Catch-22, Little Big Man, and The World According to Garp, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is an original and exciting work - a novel disguised as a memoir; a mystery that cloaks itself in humor; an artful piece of literature that bites the hand that breeds it. A heartbreaking story about truth and honesty and the damage they do, it's above all a massive piece of entertainment that will make you think and make you care.
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Others will have to explain why. I can't. In part, I'd suggest this was fine, pathetic human characterization, the likes of Bellow's Henderson (The Rain King)and Nabokov's nanny ("Speak Memory"). I sensed a bit of Hamlet tilting toward Kalamazoo in there, too.
This was a fast and most enjoyable read - and re-read for me.
Then again, I've read the "Writer's" referenced and I live there, too!
"An Arsonist's Guide..."
Sam Pulsifer is the kind of person you strive all your life not to be. He is a woeful bumbler, having accidentally burned down poet Emily Dickinson's house when he was a teenager. He begins his story recounting the ten years he spent in prison as a result of his crime, for in destroying the Dickinson house, he also killed two people having a tryst upstairs on the venerable Dickinson bed. His melancholy recollection:
"...even at the trial I tried hard not to know their names...`I don't really remember the whole thing that well'...which as I've mentioned is a talent of mine and was true besides." (p. 27)
For a while, he is able conveniently to forget his past. He goes to college, marries ("Anne Marie was pretty, extraordinarily good looking, really, and tall with...a smart smile that was so beautiful you didn't mind the way it made you feel stupid." p. 12), has children, and becomes as happy as anyone can expect for a bumbler who accidentally burned down the Dickinson house, killed two people, and has never told his wife anything about it.
And then when someone starts torching the houses of other writers in New England, Sam's past quickly catches up to him (he is, of course, a principal suspect in these cases) and he gets into real illusion-destroying, life-destroying trouble.
No one seems to believe in his innocence, and so Sam sets out in a lonely uphill battle to exonerate himself. Much to his dismay, he finds that he is a terrible detective when he tries to discover the truth about the fires. Sam chalks it up, confusedly, to his English-teacher mother's forbidding him to read Encyclopedia Brown: "...if I'd ever read a real detective novel...then maybe I'd have known what to do next. Instead I muddled through the best I could. I seemed to remember...that detectives drank impressively...So I had a drink." (p. 24)
And so Sam heads down a long, sad, boozy, comedic road to find the truth, after which he wonders, to paraphrase: What is the truth? And why would anyone ever want to know it?
Brock Clarke's "An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England" has recurring themes of misunderstanding and delusion. Along the way, Clarke manages to skewer delusions related to self-improvement courses (the College of Me); let-it-all-hang-out psychology; bond analysts ("...all the cashish...they made while (swindling) old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress..." p.4); superstores; lawn maintenance; suburbia ("Camelot was beautiful. There were no trees anywhere--it was as though Camelot had been nuked...and each house was exactly the same..." p. 20); book clubs; the love and value of books; scholarly pretentiousness; Memoirs (with a big M, like Art with a big A); Harry Potter; Ethan Frome; professorial fussiness ("The letter was extremely learned--there were 'whoms' and 'ones' everywhere, and lots of complicated punctuation..." p. 140); poetry; modern culture ("It doesn't matter whether the book is good or not...And, besides... the book has to be good. It's part of the culture..." p. 168); pluckiness and perseverance; hope ("Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe Anne Marie and I could work things out in New Hampshire...help her forget my lying...maybe my bumbling wouldn't be so severe here...After all, the place was so very old and had been through a lot, so you probably couldn't do much to it that hadn't been done already." p. 190); and last, but not least, feminist indignation ("She insists that I didn't think enough of (Harriet Beecher) Stowe as a writer to burn down her house and how this is just 'typical' and another slap in the face of Stowe and for women readers and writers everywhere...an example of how the world undervalues Stowe...If there were any justice in the world, she writes, I would have torched Stowe's house...I agree with her, every time, but this doesn't stop her..." p 295).
I read this book through and then immediately turned around and read it again, shedding a tear at the end each time. I enjoyed it even more, perhaps, during the second read: so many comedic tie-ins came to light, tie-ins that I could appreciate only in a re-read.
Clarke's novel/faux memoir/guide is a beautifully-crafted, multilayered, dark and funny tale. If you have lived long enough, you may be able to understand the hapless Sam's conclusion: Why would anyone ever want to know the truth?