Burning Down the House
As a title, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England has a lot to live up to. Happily, Brock Clarke's hilarious new novel makes good on its title and then some, with a loopily shambolic narrative as captivating as its feckless firebug narrator, Sam Pulsifer. Sam did 10 years in a minimum-security prison for accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House when he was a teenager, incinerating a couple who were in flagrante in an upstairs bedroom at the time. This makes Sam an unpopular guy around Amherst, where outraged citizens vent their displeasure by spray-painting threatening messages from Dickinson's poetry in his parents' driveway, or lobbing Birkenstocks through their picture window.
So it's perhaps understandable that, years later, Sam neglects to tell his wife about his youthful crime. It's a little less understandable, maybe, that he tells her his own parents died in a house fire, when in fact they live a few miles from the suburban wasteland where Sam has settled with his own family. You could even say there is a sort of tragic resonance when the son of the couple who went up in smoke drops by to confront Sam and demand an apology. If this novel were, say, Scott Spencer's Endless Love, another book featuring a hapless accidental pyromaniac, the results might well be poignant and tragic. Instead, they're laugh-out-loud funny.
Clarke recognizes that good stories can be gruesome and absurd; his novel is both. Thomas, the man whose parents Sam inadvertently killed, takes his vengeance upon him by destroying his marriage and then moving in with Sam's wife. But is Thomas the same person who is now systematically burning down the homes of other New England writers in a series of copycat crimes? Because just as Sam has kept his mother's stories in his head, so his father has kept a stash of letters written to his son while Sam was in prison.
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
By Brock Clarke
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 303 pp., $23.95
"They were all from people who lived near the homes of writers and who wanted me to burn those houses down. A man in New London, Connecticut, wanted me to burn Eugene O'Neill's home because of what an awful drunk O'Neill was . . . A woman in Lenox, Massachusetts, wanted me to torch Edith Wharton's house because visitors to Wharton's house parked in front of the woman's mailbox . . . A dairy farmer in Cooperstown, New York, wanted me to pour gasoline down the chimney of the James Fenimore Cooper House . . . 'We'll pay, too; I'll sell some of our herd if I have to. I look forward to your response.' "
Other homes on the list: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's, Nathaniel Hawthorne's, Mark Twain's, Edward Bellamy's, and a replica log cabin at Walden Pond. As these places begin to go up in flames, Sam desperately tries to prove his innocence by tracking down the people who sent him those letters years before.
The plot doesn't burn so much as it smolders. But that doesn't matter, because Clarke serves up so many priceless setpieces skewering the literary life from women's reading groups and the current vogue for memoirs, to the love affair between two professors of American literature, one of whom begins class with the statement, "Willa Cather is a cunt." There's also a detour to New Hampshire, where Sam attends a reading by the writer in residence at the Robert Frost Place, an author who embodies the spirit of New England, and whose work features an ax-wielding old man named Pa. Any English major who can read this chapter without shedding tears of mirth should go into accounting.
Grownup fans of Daniel Pinkwater's sublimely comic young-adult novels should love An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, as will admirers of Jasper Fforde's spoofy literary detective series featuring Thursday Next. It's the perfect end-of-summer book, funny and sharp and smart enough to ease the transition from beach to boardroom. Just don't leave it near a pack of matches.
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