An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England proved to be one of those book titles I could not resist forever. As an avowed book lover and one who has enjoyed visiting author homes for a long time, I shuddered at the very thought of what might be inside the covers of this one – and what I found was even stranger than I expected it would be. An Arsonist’s Guide is not for everyone, but if you enjoy books about books and writing, humorous novels combining farce and satire, or characters so unrealistic that they start to seem real to you, you will probably enjoy it.
Sam Pulsifer, whose father is an editor and whose mother is an English professor, accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s historic home. His parents probably could not visualize a crime more devastating and embarrassing than that one, but it gets worse: the fire also claimed the lives of the two people still inside the old house. Now, after serving ten years in prison, Sam is returning to Amherst, the scene of his crime, because he has no place else to go. He just wants to hide while he figures out what to do with the rest of his life.
The past decade has not been kind to Sam’s parents. His crime and ensuing imprisonment have taken such a toll on his mother and his father, both physically and mentally, that Sam barely recognizes them or their new lifestyle. But even then, it is only when the historic homes of other famous authors begin to go up in smoke all around New England that Sam understands that his chances of maintaining a low profile while he regroups are gone. Due to the timing and proximity of the fires, Sam is, of course, the most logical suspect. He gets it – and he knows that if he doesn’t prove his innocence, he is likely headed back to prison for a long, long time.
The problem is that Sam Pulsifer is a chronic “bungler,” something that was first pointed out rather gleefully to him by a group of white collar criminals he met in prison. As he moves from one crime scene to the next, interviewing people and observing the physical evidence, managing to implicate himself in one fire after the other, Sam proves their assessment to be an astute one. He is indeed a “bungler.”
Brock Clarke’s utterly absurd characters and far-fetched plot are a perfect match for the satirical look at life (and the literary lifestyle) that he presents in An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Ironically, the book is filled with literary allusions and observations that will be most appreciated by the very folks whose lifestyle is being lampooned. Clarke has something to say about the complexities of life, love, and marriage, and he says it well. This may very well be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books with little opinion between the two extremes, but book lovers should give it the shot it deserves.