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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New Englandby Brock Clarke
Hilariously twisted and yet somehow still burning with heart, An Arsonist's Guide will be eminently accessible (and very funny) to readers of any background. Lit majors, however, may take special delight in watching the source of so many dull lectures go up in smoke. No matter, Clarke's name is one you'll be hearing more and more.
Synopses & Reviews
As a teenager, it was never Sam Pulsifer's intention to torch an American landmark, and he certainly never planned to kill two people in the blaze. To this day, he still wonders why that young couple was upstairs in bed in the Emily Dickinson House after hours.
After serving ten years in prison for his crime, Sam is determined to put the past behind him. He finishes college, begins a career, falls in love, gets married, has two adorable kids, and buys a home. His low-profile life is chugging along quite nicely until the past comes crashing through his front door.
As the homes of Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even a replica of Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, go up in smoke, Sam becomes the number one suspect. Finding the real culprit is the only way to clear his name — but sometimes there's a terrible price to pay for the truth.
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is a tour de force — a novel disguised as a memoir, a mystery that cloaks itself in humor, and an artful piece of literature that bites the hand that breeds it.
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Some people have no sense of humor when it comes to great literature. Or arson. A few months ago, book section editors around the country received a letter on quaint stationery from Beatrice Hutchins. She wanted someone to burn down Edith Wharton's house. Naturally, the good people who care for The Mount, Wharton's stately mansion in Lenox, Mass., contacted the police. But it turned... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) out to be a publicity stunt by Algonquin Books, a small publisher in Chapel Hill, N.C., trying to ignite some interest in Brock Clarke's upcoming novel, 'An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.' The publisher issued a sort-of apology, claiming that the letter was 'clearly fictitious and written in an over-the-top, playful manner.' Clearly, book publishers don't get the psychotic mail that newspapers do. But all is forgiven now. The publicity campaign may have fizzled, but Clarke's novel sizzles. This straight-faced, postmodern comedy scorches all things literary, from those moldy author museums to the excruciating question-and-answer sessions that follow public readings. There are no survivors here: women's book clubs, literary critics, Harry Potter fans, bookstores, English professors, memoir writers, librarians, Jane Smiley, even the author himself — they're all singed under Clarke's crisp wit. He's published a few novels before this one and garnered some attention for his short stories, but 'An Arsonist's Guide' suggests that Clarke is a dangerous man, though not in the way the Lenox police feared: Don't shelve his book with other novels. Keep it away from fumes of pretension. The story opens with this startling confession: 'I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts.' But, as you may have heard, 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers,' and so Sam spills out his sad tale, determined to explain himself and save the people he loves. In fact, his strange, tortured sense of love and a penchant for tragedy usually keep this absurd tale from spinning into mere silliness. When Sam was 18 years old, he snuck into the Shrine of Amherst after hours for a smoke and accidentally incinerated it along with two docents who were upstairs making whoopee on the poet's virginal bed. As you can imagine, Sam's parents took this hard. His father was an editor at a small university press, and his mother was an English teacher. 'Beautiful words really mattered to them,' Sam writes. 'You could always count on a good poem to make them cry or sigh meaningfully.' And the town reacted badly, too: graffiti, ugly slurs, 'some picketing by the local arts council.' And there were the letters, although, as Sam admits, 'There is something underwhelming about scholarly hate mail — the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions.' What really unnerves him are the 'other letters,' scores of them from across the country: 'They were all from people who lived near the homes of writers and who wanted me to burn those houses down.' The story opens when Sam has emerged from 10 years in prison, determined to leave behind his life as a 'bumbler' and an arsonist and a murderer and a desecrator of literary history. He marries a nice woman who doesn't know anything about his past and settles down in a new, shiny suburb. But this pleasant life is soon swept away when he's confronted by the grown and angry son of the docents who died in the Emily Dickinson fire. He blows Sam's cover and sends him scurrying back to his parents, which leads to even greater calamity. 'I'd forgotten my literature,' Sam confesses, 'forgotten that you can't go home again.' His parents have mutated into wrecks he can barely recognize. Are they still working? Are they still married? Are they still sane? And then there's an even more pressing crisis: Someone has started burning down the homes of famous New England writers. And all the evidence points to him. Racing against the arsonist, poor Sam throws himself into all these mysteries, wondering all along, 'If a good story leads you to do bad things, can it be a good story after all?' He confronts some of the 137 screwed-up letter writers who begged him to burn down those famous writers' houses 10 years ago. Like everyone else in this novel, they seem to exist in a surreal world just two steps away from ours. The whole thing is written in an innocent, deadpan voice, packed full of Sam's bittersweet observations and fueled by Clarke's satire. Yes, there are slow moments, too many rhetorical questions about what's happening, and far too many Nuggets of Wisdom. ('Sometimes the lies you tell are less frightening than the loneliness you might feel if you stopped telling them.') Sam's muted despair is heartbreaking, but too often this pose of wise naif sounds forced and self-conscious: Holden Caufield with a match. And despite the usual liveliness of Clarke's humor, some of his satire is stale: We've already heard that suburbanites are obsessed with conformity and lawn care; we've already noticed that the mugs at the Barnes & Noble cafe are really big. A recurring gag about convicted financial analysts who write inspirational memoirs is beaten into the ground. And then beaten some more. But none of these flaws can extinguish the book's brilliance. For the most part, 'An Arsonist's Guide' is a mixture of Mark Twain and Jasper Fforde, which is, admittedly, just the kind of inane PR description that Clarke skewers in these pages. It should have been published with a full set of footnotes, except that every one of them might have led to a lawsuit — or at least a death threat. You'll have your own favorite scene, but mine is the spot-on description of a bitter, alcoholic writer-in-residence at the Robert Frost House reading from a story that is 'more or less an unadorned grocery list of the things the old man hated.' The strangest aspect of 'An Arsonist's Guide,' though, is that Clarke's weird attack on literature ends up celebrating it somehow. Even after he's laid waste to so much of our literary culture, he concedes the enduring, frustrating power of stories. The fury that drives this assorted collection of misfits to fantasize about torching writers' homes stems from a desperate sense of their own inadequacy. They're all struggling not to lose their identities, not to be overwhelmed by the characters and the emotions that confront them in books. They don't want to keep reading, but they can't help it. Literature, Clarke suggests in this witty lament, is somehow the pain and salve of our lives. We're drawn to stories like a moth to you know what. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] refreshing send-up of the self-indulgent memoir, with a cast of characters by turns tragic and absurd." Booklist
"Clarke...has created a character feebly struggling against fate in a situation both sad and funny, believable and preposterous." Library Journal
"A serious novel that is often very funny and will be a page-turning pleasure for anyone who loves literature." Kirkus Reviews
"Brock Clarke is our generation's Richard Ford, destined to be as influential and as celebrated. And his arsonist, Sam Pulsifer, is an Everyman surburban nomad, a literary misadventurer who is as insightful and doomed as he is heartbreakingly hilarious. I love this book" Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment
"This is a sad, funny, absurd, and incredibly moving novel. Its comic mournnfulness, its rigorous, breakneck narrative, delight....Clarke [has] given us a wonderful book about life, literature, and the anxieties of their influence." Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land
"While I was reading this dark, funny, tragic novel, I would look at the people around me and feel sorry for them because they weren't occupying the same world I was; they weren't living as I was, inside the compelling, off-kilter atmosphere of Brock Clarke's pages. This is the best book I've read in a long time." Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel
A lot of remarkable things have happened to Sam Pulsifer, beginning with the ten years he spent in prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and unwittingly killing two people. Emerging at the age of twenty-eight, he creates a new life as a husband and father. But when the homes of other famous writers go up in smoke, he must prove his innocence by uncovering the identity of this literary-minded arsonist.
It may not have been Sam Pulsifer's intention to torch the Emily Dickinson House, but he served ten years in prison for his crime. After his release, the past comes crashing through his front door as the homes of Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne go up in smoke.
About the Author
Brock Clarke is the author of The Ordinary White Boy, What We Won't Do, and Carrying the Torch. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award in fiction. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, the Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review; in the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies; and on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
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