2008: 185. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England

“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 in American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter.”

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke

Yet another “funny” book about a man adrift in life going through allegedly madcap adventures.  Though, to be fair, this is more of a satire than comedy, so while I didn’t love this book (or find it particularly funny) I appreciated what the author was doing.  However, with the premise he stumbled upon, it could have been so much more.  

The story is told by Sam Pulsifer, who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson homestead when he was in high school, killing two people and earning the hate of literary scholars everywhere.  He is sent to prison (despite it being an accident) and when he emerges, he builds a life for himself, of sorts  he takes a degree in packaging sciences,* marries a nice girl and builds a life for himself in the nameless soulless suburbs (this is not a judgment - he does it on purpose, to his poor wife’s chagrin).  Until, one day, the son of the people he killed shows up and tells his wife the whole story (well, first he tells her that Sam has cheated on her, and then he tells her the whole story).  And then someone starts burning down other famous writer’s homes in New England.  And it turns out that people have been sending Sam letters begging him to do this, and those are the houses getting burned, and there is the whole thing about his parent’s collapsed and failed marriage and how his father has become a drunk, and you know, there is a lot going on in this book, and it is not really that funny - the events are too real to be madcap (particularly the stuff about Sam’s parent’s marriage), and other stuff is treated too lightly to take seriously (the stuff about burning down the writer’s houses).  And there are good gems in there - I liked the portrayal of the two angry professors who wanted to burn down Mark Twain’s house to prove their love to each other - and I liked the parts that were meant to satirize the notion of memoir culture - but they got lost in the background of all that other stuff that was going on.  I didn’t really like this book, but I think Clarke has promise, if he can clarify his vision a bit, and also leave out the kitchen sink.


*In case, like me, you do not know what that is, it is the science of packaging things - like designing ziplock bags

Date/Place Completed: 11/16/08; D.C.

Categories: Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017