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An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England ~ Brock Clarke

June 29, 2009

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Genre: Adult Fiction

Publisher: Algonquin Books

305 pages

ISBN: 9781565126145

Sam Pulsifer is having a bad day. He is, in fact, having a bad life. Like many modern, middle aged men, he is balding, gaining weight and feeling weighed down by the relationships, or lack there of, in his life. The point of distinction between Pulsifer and other men is that when he was a teenager, Sam accidentally set fire to the Emily Dickinson house, inadvertently killing two people inside.

The present finds Sam a married father of two with a job he doesn’t hate. The catch is that he has buried his past, leaving his wife and children in the dark about the house burning, his related incarceration, even his parents’ existence. When the son of the couple killed in the house fire shows up on the Pulsifer doorstep, Sam’s well-woven lie starts unraveling fast. To add insult to injury, someone is setting fires to writers’ homes in New England and before long the police are also at Sam’s front door.

I feel like I need to write two reviews of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. I wanted so badly to like it. There is a postmodern vibe to it, which gave me hope that the rampant weirdness throughout the novel would lead somewhere profound. There are fleeting strings of wisdom that float through the pages but overall it seems to be a bland attempt at creating a satirical memoir. Perhaps the problem is that it achieved its goal: to poke fun at memoirs. I will not pick up a memoir unless forced to am, in general, not a memoir fan so the style, however ironic, might have been the turn on off.

I do not need characters to be likable, relatable or even halfway decent individuals. In fact, I find that a book is more fun when none of these things are true. While this was the case for An Arsonist’s Guide, it did not make the book more interesting, only dull. The story and prose read like a combination of the twisted parts of Irving, a plus in my camp, and the readability of a slog through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a strong negative.

Now that the hard part is over, I feel like I should address the parts of the book that made it such a disappointment: the parts I liked. If there was nothing positive to say, I would have enjoyed the book for what it was but like many reviewers on the piece, I wanted it to be so much more. The writing, over all, is great. There are small stabs at absurdity and fun author references. Mostly through Sam’s mother and a foul-mouthed college professor, the joys and pitfalls of being too well-read are put on display. Sam and his collected friends, foes and family members start to dissect the many issues with over-praised classical literature.

While I never found out why the periodical reviews plastered on front of the book proclaimed its hilarity, I did find myself giggling on the inside more than once. The humor, though, is more of an acerbic wittiness than it is a laugh riot and it is sparsely distributed with much to be desired in between. All in all, this is going to go down on my list of books that could have been great. It has better moments but over all, I think that it either tried too hard or didn’t try hard enough.

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