Maggie's Reviews > An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
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Feb 11, 2008

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Sam Pulsifer begins his faux-memoir with an explanation: he’s a convicted murderer, arsonist, and not much of a literature fan. Sam is also a “bumbler,” and I suppose that accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House and killing the two people still inside was his ultimate bumble. For his crime, Pulsifer serves ten years in a white-collar prison, and upon release discovers he is widely reviled by the denizens of his hometown of Amherst, MA, explaining " the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches of Salem, and then there's me." However, it appears that he is only mostly reviled. During his prison tenure, Sam's father had been inundated with a strange form of fan mail - folks offering him money in exchange for burning down other authors' homes: Hawthorne's, Twain's, Alcott's, and the like. Although surprised, Pulsifer refuses to see himself as an arsonist and chooses to ignore the letters, focusing instead on trying to build some semblance of a normal life by going off to college, getting married, buying a house, having a few kids, and staying the hell away from Amherst. But his reasonably happy existence is eventually shattered when, twenty years after his crime, the son of his accidental victims shows up on his doorstep seeking vengeance. His arrival sets off Pulsifer's downward spiral and sparks the mystery of who has resumed his work of burning down famous authors' homes, leaving Sam to assume the blame.

An Arsonist's Guide..., although fiction, reads like a memoir, and takes satirical jabs at memoirs, book clubs, English professors, and literary fads such as Harry Potter. It received gushing reviews from a wide variety of critics, and while it aims to be humorous, I felt it occasionally fell flat. Sam's (or, rather Clarke's) tone is strangely detached while telling his life story, and although this takes some getting used to, it does allow for certain passages to be funnier than they may have otherwise been. Take, for example, Sam's description of life in prison:

I learned something from everyone, is the point, even while I was fending off the requisite cell-block buggerer, a gentle but crooked corporate accountant at Arthur Anderson who was just finding his true sexual self and who told me in a cracked, aching voice that he wanted me - wanted me, that is, until I told him I was a virgin, which I was, and which, for some reason, made him not want me anymore, which meant that people did not want to sleep with twenty-eight-year-old male virgins, which I thought was useful to know.

See? It's that special brand of straight-faced humor that sometimes works for some people.

Overall, An Arsonist's Guide... is something that many English majors and book geeks just might love; however, although I am both those things, there was something about it - be it the tone, the wimpiness of the narrator, or the combination of the two - that kept me from feeling such depth of affection.
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