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Burning Down the House: A Review of Brock Clarke's AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITER'S HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND

Shortly after my book, A Journey into the Transcendentalists' New England, came out, I received an advanced reading copy of another book -- An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.  Needless to say, I was intrigued.  The novel, and it is fiction, is the handiwork of novelist Brock Clarke, who sparks our interest with this incindiary first line:

I, Sam Pulsifier, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter. 

And although Clarke predictably shies away from giving away too much in the first paragraph (the next sentence reads:  "This story is locally well-known, so I won't go into it here."), I was gripped.  Clarke's narrator, Sam Pulsifier, is a hapless and astonishingly unlucky fellow (a "bumbler").  That said, Sam wins our hearts as surely as he loses the sympathy of those who love him.

After serving time for inadvertently burning down Amherst's literary monument, Sam begins his life anew. He earns a college degree, marries and starts a family, and creates a life literally out of the ashes.   His one mistake is settling down merely miles from his parents and the site of the house he burned to the ground.  Inevitably, it proves impossible to keep the two worlds separated as he is tossed out of his new world and thrust back into the old.  And then houses start to burn.

As Sam struggles to figure out the myriad puzzles of his life, including who is burning down literary landmarks across New England, Clarke's narrative skill almost never falters.  Although Clarke leans heavily on foreshadowing and cliff-dropper chapter endings, he does it with enough self-effacing charm that we trot along happily:

But even Anne Marie seemed happy enough after a while, and if prison was my first not entirely unpleasant exile from the world, then this was the second, and not once was I recognized as the man who burned down the Emily Dickinson House, et cetera, and not once did I hear that voice, the voice inside me that asked, What Else? What Else? Not once, that is, until the man whose parent I accidentally killed in the Emily Dickinson house fire appeared at my front door one day, and then the voice returned and then I moved back in with my parents  and reread all those letters, and then the bond analysts showed up and started giving me a God-and-country hard time, and then people (not me! not me!) started setting fire to writers' homes all over New England, and that's when all the trouble started.

However, as the story unfolds, one gets the sense that all the trouble started much, much earlier and that all future weirdness has its roots in some weirdness of the past.  Sam bumbles through situations including moving back into his old room, drinking with his parents, hiding from the bond analysts, and trying to solve a mystery before he gets put in jail again.

Whether it is local setting (I live in Amherst, the home of the still-standing Emily Dickinson house), the tongue-in-cheek irony of the narration, the delicious blasphemy of burning down these literary heritage sites (only in fiction, mind you), or the utterly pathetic but undeniably well-intentioned Sam, this is a delightful read.