An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
Book Review ~ Spencer Bailey
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England; by Brock Clarke ‘90 Algonquin; $23.95
Sam Pulsifer, the narrator and protagonist of Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England , is a naive and nutty hero. As the man responsible for burning down the Emily Dickinson house, Pulsifer is not the dumbed down dimwit he initially seems to be. Pulsifer emerges as a character of great depth; he is downright hilarious while, at the same time, appropriately idiotic. As the story (and arson) unfolds, Pulsifer's often childlike behavior makes Clarke's 300-page novel seem, well, pretty damn short.
Sam's circuitous journey begins when he takes a tour (along with “a group of students and their teacher from some school called Dickinson College”—yes, as in the college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the author's alma mater) of the Emily Dickinson house in Massachusetts. Later that day, after he unintentionally sets fire to the writer's house, Sam's life takes a darkly comic turn: ten years in prison followed by a struggle to maintain a family who has no knowledge of Sam's previous life as an accidental arsonist.
But soon Sam's past comes back to haunt him, and we follow the hopeless so-dubbed arson hero through a myriad of absurd circumstances. Thomas Coleman, the son of the couple who died in the Dickinson blaze, tells Sam's wife about her husband's hidden past. Sam is then forced to leave his home and goes to spend time with his oddball parents. Then the homes of Robert Frost, Edward Bellamy, and Mark Twain are all set aflame. Although, he is innocent, Sam is blamed for the fires.
In the end, the plot and characters, while satirical and eccentric, still allow us to love Sam. Even despite his “bumbling” behavior, which seems to add more fuel to the novel's quite literal fire, we love him for it. And for this An Arsonist's Guide succeeds.
Part fiction and part mock-memoir, the novel serves as a witty modern day testament to the strength of what a good American writer can do. It may even be safe to say that Clarke, by making fun of (or, in some cases, burning down) many American literary traditions—from Emily Dickinson's house to the Oprah book club to Harry Potter fans and, finally, to his own work—is actually rekindling past literary flames, not destroying them.