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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England


An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Forty-something Sam Pulsifer had succeeded in getting his life
together. No one knew of his horrible secret --- that at age 18, he
accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst,
Massachusetts, killing a tour guide and her husband who were
enjoying an “intimate moment” in one of the
landmark’s many bedrooms. But Sam did not intend to
irrevocably alter so many lives that day. He merely wanted to see
if any of his mother’s stories about the place were true.
(After a brief time in his youth when his father left the family,
his mother would regale him with horror stories about awful things
that occurred in the house.)

Sam was sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he spent time
getting to know fellow inmates, such as the bond analysts who
turned larceny and fraud into an art form, rather than himself.
After serving out his sentence, Sam tried to pick up his life where
he left off but found the residents of Amherst to be the
unforgiving type. After the umpteenth horrible word was
spray-painted on their driveway, and a stray Birkenstock made its
way through their front window, Sam’s parents asked him to
move out.

Despite feeling that he may never be able to lead a normal life,
Sam gets himself into school and, later, a career in product
packaging, where he meets his future wife, Anne Marie. Soon after
their marriage, they have two children, but no one in Sam’s
new family knows anything about his past. That is, until Thomas
Coleman, son of the deceased couple Sam accidentally killed in the
fire, shows up at their door. Even more alarming is the fact that
someone recently has begun torching writers’ homes in the
area, and all fingers (and accusatory looks) point to Sam. Can he
figure out who the firebug is and get his life back in the

Brock Clarke’s curious and creative novel teeters on the line
between heartbreaking chronicle and absurdist comedy. But as in
most absurdist stories, the characters act, well…absurdly.
Don’t look for any of Sam’s actions to make much sense;
his decisions are strictly guttural and oftentimes nonsensical.
Clarke’s humor does shine through, even in scenes where
alcoholic despair and malaise hold sway. One feels pity for Sam
because, as he puts it, he’s a “bumbler…”
And you can “always count on a bumbler to think that he is
unique in his bumbling, to believe his bumbling is like a
fingerprint, specific to him. The truth is that the world is full
of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that’s
you’re special is just one more thing you’ve

From a college professor’s very “colorful”
opinion of Willa Cather, to Sam’s practical advice to
would-be arsonists, the humor is more anarchistic than
laugh-out-loud funny but is certainly rousing and readable.


Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on December 22, 2010

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
by Brock Clarke

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 305 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1565125517
  • ISBN-13: 9781565125513