Summary and book reviews of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

A Novel

By Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2007,
    305 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    305 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

CHAPTER 1

I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter. This story is locally well known, and so I won't go into it here. 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.

So anyway, I served my time, and since the sentencing judge took mercy on me, I served my time at the minimum-security prison up at Holyoke. At Holyoke there were bond analysts and lawyers and day traders and city managers and school administrators, all of them caught with their hands in the till and nothing at all like me, an eighteen-year-old accidental arsonist and ...

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Reviews

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Brock Clarke manages to skewer pretty much every literary pretension there is, and any number of cultural mores, but his satire does not so much bite as gently gum its victims - Clarke is not an outsider laughing at the literary world, but an insider sharing its jokes.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Janet Maslin

Eventually overplotted to the point of overkill, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers' Homes in New England still manages to remain sharp-edged and unpredictable, punctuated by moments of choice absurdist humor.

Washington Post

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.

The Washington Post - Ron Charles

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.

Entertainment Weekly - Jeff Jensen

This absurdly hilarious mystery ... about a bumbler's guilt-consumed life skewers the whole memoir thing and offers a fact/fiction-blurring meditation on the risky business of self-deception. A-

Village Voice - Elizabeth Hand

Grownup fans of Daniel Pinkwater's sublimely comic young-adult novels should love An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, as will admirers of Jasper Fforde's spoofy literary detective series featuring Thursday Next. It's the perfect end-of-summer book, funny and sharp and smart enough to ease the transition from beach to boardroom. Just don't leave it near a pack of matches.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Like TV analysts who deconstruct Tiger Woods' swing, it's not easy to do justice to writers like Brock Clarke. But I know just enough to recommend An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England to anyone, and especially to anyone who wants to read the best, newest manifestation of great American writing.

The St Louis Dispatch - Steve Giegerich

For all the trauma he brings upon himself, Pulsifer's disarming charm and witty insight carry the day. And the premise of this beautifully constructed novel as well.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Anne Julia Wyman

Clarke's circuitous prose illuminates the excruciating familiarity of Sam's circumstances: "Apparently this is what you do when you lose someone you love: you scramble to make sure you don't lose everyone you love." For a man locked out of his own house and under close supervision by an arson detective, Sam Pulsifer demonstrates - in word if not deed - considerable wisdom. Clarke's intelligence loops seamlessly through Sam's narration; this is just one of the book's many strengths ... a wonderful book.

Library Journal

It's a setting so bizarre that the clear moral lesson smacks of sarcasm. In the end, however, this quirky story is entertaining and readable.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life.

Kirkus Reviews

A serious novel that is often very funny and will be a page-turning pleasure for anyone who loves literature.

Reader Reviews
Melissa

Book worth reading, not burning!
Great book with statements about book burning/banning - can books bring out the evil in people? Can we blame them for such? Book also made statements about truth and lies - is it better to live a lie than the truth? While I found some of the ...   Read More

GPL

An Arsonists Guide to Writer's Homes in New England
This book was a delightful surprise. The story was unusual, irreverant, sad and amusing, all at the same time. The main character, who accidentally burns down a famous writer's house (while a docent and her husband were in the writer's bed), moves ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Brock Clarke is the author of three previous books: The Ordinary White Boy (2001) and two story collections: What We Won't Do (2002), which won the 2000 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction; and Carrying The Torch (2005). His stories and essays have appeared in many places including Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, the Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review. He has received awards from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and others. He lives in ...

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