Sam finally loses his virginity when he’s about 30 to a Catholic woman named Anne Marie. Sam asks her to marry him that same day and Anne Marie says yes. They’re married and soon have two children. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that Sam’s bumbling also extends to his family life.
The novel takes place in and around Amherst, Massachusetts. I’ve never been there but Clarke’s such a damn good writer that I feel like I know the place well. The narrator describes it thusly: “Amherst didn’t seem big enough to justify all these superstores and their parking lots; it was like building a sub without first building the urb.”
As Sam readjusts to life on the outside, someone begins setting fires to other writers’ homes, Mark Twain’s, Edith Wharton’s, Robert Frost’s. The suspicion falls naturally on Sam, who sets out on a detective mission to find the real arsonist. It’s this mystery plot that drives the narrative.
At times this book reminds me of some of Vonnegut’s earlier work, which is to say that it’s near perfect. The deadpan humor, the way Clarke fiddles with language, the way the characters possess a sense of zaniness and realness at the same time, Clarke brings it all.
At the end of the novel Brook Clarke includes a section of dialogue between himself and his protagonist Sam Pulsifer. In this schizophrenic romp Sam Pulsifer interviews Brook Clarke about different aspects of the novel. This bonus discussion gives the reader a unique look into the crazy mind of a novelist.
Sam Pulsifer: First, thank you for giving me the last name Pulsifer. I like the way it has the word fire in it, because there are fires in the book, of course, and also Lucifer, or, at least, Lusifer. Very Clever.Brooke Clarke: Huh? I didn’t intend that at all. It never occurred to me until you mentioned it.SP: Why did you name me Pulsifer, then?BC: Because I’ve only met two families with that last name, and they’re both from New England.SP: That’s your reason? That’s a terrible reason.
Speaking to himself/Sam Pulsifer, Brock Clarke explains his admiration for the mystery genre: “That is why I’ve come to love mysteries. They give the reader and writer a sense of purpose: this guy needs to solve this mystery or else. And I thought it especially relevant in writing this book because you, Sam, don’t know the first thing about mysteries, mostly because your mother never allowed you to read them as a kid. And so you’re as much a bumbler at being a detective as you are at everything else. That was important to me because the one thing I distrust about some mysteries, some literary detectives, is that they’re implausibly good at it. You, thankfully, were not.”
This novel takes literary genres like the confessional novel, the mystery, the memoir, and ties them all together with an absurdist thread. At its core this is a novel about the power of story. As Sam puts it: “Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all?”
I started off talking about the lavish praise this book received from the literary hotshots. I said “Apparently everyone loves this book.” Well, I was wrong. The Amazon.com reviews are full of hate for this novel. One reviewer describes it as “my least favorite book ever.” The reviewer writes: “The main character is incredibly stupid. He goes off on tangents which masquerade as meaningful observations about the human condition, but which are in fact b.s. that doesn’t really mean anything.”
Then again, every good story stokes emotion, both the good and the bad. I still highly recommend this book for anyone who appreciates a good story and a good laugh. And if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.