Before Sam Pulsifer is sentenced to ten years in prison for burning down the Amherst, Massachusetts, home of Emily Dickinson and killing two other trespassers, his judge asks a thoughtful and (by this novel’s standards) typically pointed question: “if a good story leads you to do bad things, can it be a good story after all?”
Brock Clarke’s fourth book, the rambunctious An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, takes a number of approaches to the question. Pulsifer, who torched the Dickinson home in a fit of nervousness — his mother told him wayward tales of its being haunted; tantalized, he snuck in, got nervous, lit a smoke, heard a creak, and bolted — is but a sounding post for the answer. He’s so overwhelmed by stories that he’s devoid of tact, opinion, even foundation.
Our narrator’s backstory is elaborate, but suffice it to say that after ten years of prison and another ten years starting a new life in a nearby suburb, Pulsifer suddenly finds himself hounded by the ghosts of stories he’s tried to forget. Chief among the new problems is a box of letters Pulsifer received while in prison, from embittered readers asking him to burn down more literary landmarks. One by one, the letters go missing, and the fires begin.
Clarke casts a wide net of possible suspects, and goes to great lengths to reveal their motives without taking them very seriously. Envy, revenge, misdirected anger, writerly pretension, the self-indulgence of book clubs: Clarke and Pulsifer take them all on in what’s intended to be a great lampooning of literary culture. While too pat to compel as satire — Clarke’s targets are anarchically broad, and the insider poking fun at his own medium sometimes reads as dull shtick — the book is still a great lark, a beach read for the coffee-shop dweller.
An Arsonist’s Guide works best when exposing how readers adopt narratives for their own emotional gain. Seeking refuge in a bookstore, Pulsifer eavesdrops on a book club’s discussion of a self-help memoir, and observes that “the book was there to give the women ... a reason to confess to the feelings they’d already had before reading the book, which as far as I could tell they hadn’t actually read.” Conversely, the letter-writers imploring Pulsifer to burn down more writers’ homes have been spurned by the false promises and lofty ideals of literary giants.
The breadth of Clarke’s cynicism makes some of the book’s ideas more confusing than biting. Anyone who enjoys literature is painted with a dismissive, one-dimensional brush; writers and readers alike are pompous or ignorant assholes, and the rest of the cast is jealous or spiteful of them, with petty and hyper-personal justifications (lost jobs, ruined relationships). Clarke even takes a jab at himself to even the playing field (Pulsifer scoffs at the first line of one of Clarke’s previous books, The Ordinary White Boy), but it’s a listless bit of self-consciousness.
While thematically hit-or-miss, Clarke keeps the plot moving with vigor, incorporating reflections on personal narrative and intellectual property into the novel’s trajectory without ponderously dwelling on them. He juggles a large cast and frequent changes of scenery with ease, and the bustling world he creates behooves his ridiculous (but surprisingly unsentimental) third-act plot twists. The ideological anarchy of An Arsonist’s Guide isn’t contagious, but Clarke’s satire leaves enough room for at least one resounding lesson: a good story shouldn’t always make you do bad things.
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England | by Brock Clarke | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | 303 pages | $23.95
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