Tuesday, August 19, 2014

An Arsonists Guide To Writers' Homes In New England by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Published September 2007 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Source: I bought this one January 28, 2009 from Barnes and Noble. How do I know this? Because the packing slip was still in the book!

Publisher's Summary:
A lot of remarkable things have happened to Sam Pulsifer, beginning with the ten years he spent in prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and unwittingly killing two people. Emerging at the age of twenty-eight, he creates a new life as a husband and father. But when the homes of other famous writers go up in smoke, he must prove his innocence by uncovering the identity of this literary-minded arsonist.

My Thoughts:
I first heard about this book in December 2007 on NPR; it was a holiday recommendation by an independent bookseller. You're pretty impressed with my memory right about now aren't you? Don't be. I knew I had to have learned about it on NPR; there was very little chance this was a book anyone I knew would have recommended it to me. More than a year later, I found it on clearance at Barnes and Noble and, not too surprisingly, remembered the title. Then it sat on my bookshelves for more than five years, in no small part because just a few months later this blog was born and new books started rolling into my mailbox. Which is one reason the TBR Pile Challenge is so important.

Some publisher's summaries revel too much detail, some are brilliant. This one seems determined not to give away too much about the book, including the fact that it's a novel (albeit one written as a memoir) and that it's a satire. Dark, very dark, humor. I'm not opposed to dark humor; heck, I love the Coen brothers' movies. But oh my goodness, this was depressingly dark. With the exception of Sam's children there was not a single character to be liked, Sam least of all.

Sam is, by his own account, a bumbler, socially inept and almost entirely lacking in common sense. The reviewer for the Chicago Tribune said is "impossible not to care about and laugh with Sam." I beg to differ. We've all had those people in our lives who we start out trying to help because we can see they need it but end up backing away from because they simply refuse to help themselves. Sam is one of those people. I may be jaded from having had too many of those experiences. Instead of caring about Sam, I wanted to slap him. Repeatedly. It's hard to feel sorry for someone who neglected to tell the woman he was marrying that he had spent ten years in prison and lied and told her that his parents were dead then is surprised by how badly she takes it when this all comes out.

So while I "got" the humor of An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England, it dragged for me as Clarke used letters Sam had received in prison to introduce new characters and bury Sam in deeper and deeper trouble. No doubt about it, Clarke does have a biting wit. It just got lost too often for me.


  1. I was intrigued by the part about him accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and that it's a satire but the part where you wanted to slap him repeatedly made me change my mind. I have very little patience for that kind of character and this doesn't sound like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing and saving me some time!

  2. I love the title, but the novel itself doesn't sound like something I'd fall in love with. I like the way you described your reaction to Sam. I suspect I'd feel the same way.

  3. I have this one on my ereader, and it's been there since 2010 or so. I feel guilty every time I see it.