When literature goes up in flames
Brock Clarke's fifth novel places New England's literary treasures at the mercy of a bumbling fool.
In the Massachusetts Canon of Oops, there's the Big Dig, Bill Buckner, and Sam Pulsifer. The fictional hero of Brock Clarke's fifth novel, the fabulously titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England was a teen when he dropped a lit cigarette and burned down Emily Dickinson's home – inadvertently killing a tour guide and her husband who were upstairs putting a replica of the Belle of Amherst's bed to a decidedly unapproved use.
It was the biggest literary bonfire since the first Mrs. Rochester incinerated Thornfield, and the accidental arsonist gets 10 years at a minimum security prison. After his release, Sam finds out he's gotten hundreds of letters – mostly hate mail from English teachers – but also more than a few requests to set fire to other writers' homes. "A woman in Lenox, Massachusetts, wanted me to torch Edith Wharton's house because visitors to Wharton's house parked in front of the woman's mailbox and because Wharton was always, in her opinion, something of a whiner and a phony."
Despite the generous offers of payment, Sam instead goes to college, marries, has two kids, and settles down to blissful anonymity at a job in a packaging firm. But, sadly for Sam, the main question of the novel is: Can you reinvent yourself if you don't know who you are to begin with? One day, the son of the people Sam killed shows up on his doorstep. Soon after, someone tries to set fire to Mark Twain's house. Guess who becomes Suspect No. 1?
The first pages of the novel are mordantly funny, and Clarke gets off some good shots at both the liberal intelligentsia of western Massachusetts and the cookie-cutter suburbs enveloping quaint New England towns like a polyester pillowcase on a down pillow. His zingers about literary crazes from Harry Potter to the memoir are also well aimed.
But then "An Arsonist's Guide" tries to add mystery to the satire.
To clear his name, Sam decides to investigate. Soon enough, he's uncovering unhappy facts about his parents and making Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes in his hapless efforts to erase himself from the "Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy," alongside "the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches of Salem."
It's an impressive lineup, but there's a problem: None of the people executed during the Salem witch trials were burned at the stake. (They were hanged, with the exception of one poor unfortunate who was crushed to death.) I know this as a result of a New England high school education – the kind Sam Pulsifer would have received in Amherst, Mass.
But it's just a detail, you say. Everyone's going to get something wrong at some point. But this particular bloomer occurs in the very first paragraph of the novel. And it unfortunately reveals a larger problem with "An Arsonist's Guide": Poor bumbling Sam is a kind of shadow Pinocchio. He never gets to become a real boy.
For example, part of the plot hinges on the fact that Sam can't be bothered to remember the names of the two people he killed.
Now, I'm willing to suspend a whole lot of disbelief in the name of my job. But even if I were able to believe that Sam had only the fuzziest memory of incinerating human beings, I don't really care to spend time with somebody who could forget a little detail like that.
Clarke is a very smart writer, but few of Sam's actions make any rational sense, except that they send him drifting helplessly toward tragedy. Nor do Sam's parents or wife behave any more believably. There's enough pathos hidden in Sam's mother to have given "An Arsonist's Guide" the needed gravity, but it never gets teased out before the conflagrations begin.
As a result, as an eminent novelist staying at the Robert Frost Place explains when Sam sums up his life story, "He doesn't sound like a real person at all.... He sounds like a cheap trick." Well, if you're going to write the review for me....
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.