Book Review

This guy fumbles at your soul, too

The New York TimesSeptember 16, 2007 

The narrator of "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" is an accidental firebug "with blood and soot on his hands."

He committed the unspeakable crime of burning down Emily Dickinson's house. Thus he threw Amherst, Mass., into turmoil, not only because he violated the legacy of the college town's cherished literary Belle but also because he killed "two of its loafered citizens" in the process.

Sam Pulsifer would have fared better in life had he been less dimwitted, "like a child, only bigger" in the opinion of one of his acquaintances. But he wouldn't have been as wildly, unpredictably funny. And the hilarity of Sam's narrative voice is compensation for its apparent idiocy.

"An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" is as cheerfully oddball as its title. Its cover art includes a tiny cartoon sketch of a green-frocked literary lioness garlanded in flames, capturing the irreverence of Brock Clarke's enterprise. Although it is his fourth book, it feels like the bright debut of an ingeniously arch humorist, one whose hallmark is a calm approach to insanely improbable behavior.

Clarke's premise gives him an immediate problem to solve. If Sam really torched a treasured landmark and killed people, then served 10 years in prison by the time this story begins, what kind of monster is he? In order to treat this character as a lovable marshmallow, as well as an occasionally inspired literary satirist, Clarke must figure out how to sustain this novel's sunny atmosphere without having to justify heinous violence.

So it gradually develops that Sam didn't exactly mean to incinerate anything or hurt anyone. It happened to him as accidentally as everything else in his life occurs, amid the cloud of bewilderment that follows him everywhere.

Sam never meant to become a serial arsonist. But the Dickinson fire brought forth a barrage of strange correspondence. Sam predictably prompted the rage of scholars, even if their fury failed to impress him. "There is something underwhelming," he writes, "about scholarly hate mail -- the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions -- so I didn't pay much attention to those letters at all." Sam also got dozens of letters from angry lunatics requesting that he burn down more writers' homes.

Here Clarke must be careful. His book's craziness must stay jokey. It gets no crazier than the man who wants Ralph Waldo Emerson's house destroyed to avenge his parents' naming him Waldo. Sam has no plans to fulfill his fans' requests. He prefers a safer course. After prison he went to college to major in packaging science.

He met a woman named Anne Marie. He invited her to dinner. (" 'With you?' she asked.") He married her and took up the life of a suburban father.

But Sam has an angry stalker, the son of the loafered couple who perished in the Dickinson fire. Sam becomes a suspect when other New England writers' homes burn. And he is dogged by the overweening ambition of his prison buddies, a bunch of bond analysts eager to write best-selling memoirs even though they don't have anything interesting to remember.

When this leads Sam to open his wide, dewy eyes to the present-day literary world, he finds that the memoir is "like the Soviet Union of literature, having mostly gobbled up the smaller, obsolete states of fiction and poetry." He finds this truly baffling: "Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves?" Even as Sam begins collecting insights for a book of his own, the "Arsonist's Guide" of Clarke's title, he runs headlong into practitioners of other literary genres.

Eventually overplotted to the point of overkill, "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" (Miriam Levine's real guidebook has the same title, absent the arson) manages to remain sharp-edged and unpredictable, punctuated by moments of absurdist humor.

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