Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

My paperback copy of Brock Clarke’s novel “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” is littered with drop quotes from big-shot publications: “darkly comic,” “absurdly hilarious,” “wildly, unpredictably funny” and other combinations of quirkily kooky clarifiers. Then there’s the Washington Post’s one-word quote: “Sizzles.” Okay, that last one’s a bit corny considering this novel is full of arson fires. Point is: Apparently everyone loves this book.

Well, count me in.
Sam Pulsifer, the first-person narrator, is an accidental arsonist who burns down Emily Dickinson’s house and kills the two people he didn’t realize were in bed upstairs. He’s 18 years old at the time, and he spends the next 10 in prison. When he gets out he visits his parents only to find out that his father has had a stroke, and his mother drinks more beers in one night than a Phillie’s fan at a double-header. Sam tries to fit into society, but he’s a confused and strange guy, having come of age behind bars.

Sam is a self-described “bumbler,” a man who fucks up most everything he touches. He’s aware of this, and he carries with him more than his share of self-loathing. At least it’s self-loathing of the ultra-comic variety: “Always count on a bumbler to think that he is unique in his bumbling, to believe his bumbling is like a fingerprint, specific to him. The truth is that the world is full of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that you’re special is just one more thing you’ve bumbled.”

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.


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