An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
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 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 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 a decade 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 Caulfield 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 café 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 blather 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 Book World.