An Arsonist's Guide to Writers'
Homes in New England is the sort of book that
causes one to laugh out loud - not with guffaws of
crowd attracting hysteria, but with chuckles that
slip out unawares, causing fellow commuters to turn
with questioning glances.
Meet Sam Pulsifer, one of life's well-meaning blunderers whose nuggets of wisdom share similarities with Forrest Gump, except that Sam's a lot brighter (although it would probably be easier for him if he wasn't), and where everything Gump touches turns to gold, everything Sam gets near turns to ashes.
We first meet Sam at the age of 28; ten years after he accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts - not only incinerating the house but also two docents who were sharing a private, after-hours moment on the author's bed. Sam has returned home from prison to find himself a pariah in the town and even from his father, an editor at a university press, and his mother, an English teacher. If his only crime had been to kill two citizens of the town his parents could have got over it, but burning down Amherst's shrine to literature is too much for them: "Beautiful words really mattered to them ... you could always count on a good poem to make them cry or sigh meaningfully".
For ten years, people far and near have been expressing their hatred for Sam - slashing the tires on his parents Volvo, breaking windows in his parent's house with a well aimed Birkenstock, and sending hate-mail to the house, which Sam's father hands over to him on his release from prison.
Sam is not overly bothered by the vitriolic letters from academics with their "sad literary illusions, the refusal to use contractions", but he is upset by the bulk of the letters which come from people living all over New England and beyond, urging him to come and burn down the houses of dead writers near them. The trouble is that, whatever the rest of the world might think of him, Sam didn't mean to burn down the Emily Dickinson house, so he puts the letters back in the shoe box, leaves his parent's house and forgets about both the letters and his parents as he creates a new life for himself.
Fast forward another ten years - Sam's been to college and got a degree in packaging science, he's married (telling his wife that he's an orphan), produced two children and moved to the soulless sub-division of Camelot, just a few miles from Amherst. Life is good in a bland, suburban sort of way, until the day his past catches up with him in the shape of Thomas Coleman, son of the deceased docents. Shortly after, somebody starts burning down the homes of writers across New England. Up in flames go the homes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Edward Bellamy; even the replica log cabin at Walden Pond is torched - and left behind at each location is one of the letters to Sam. Sam hopes to prove his innocence by tracking down the people who sent him the letters so many years before. As he travels, he meets writers and readers, people who love books and those who hate them, people who teach literature and those who talk about it. All this literary stimulus causes him to think about who he is and what it is about literature that can unite and separate, inspire despair and hope, disgust and reverence (to the absurd point where the homes of dead writers become shrines to their work).
The mystery of who is behind the fires takes a back seat to Brock Clarke's deliciously absurd humor epitomized in Sam's frequent nuggets of wisdom as he frantically attempts to shore up the wall of lies that has become his life with more lies, only to find the whole structure coming down on his head. Somewhere in An Arsonist's Guide's 300 pages, 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.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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