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

BY ERIN BLAKESLEE, Editorial Assistant

arsonistThe adage warns us not to judge a book by its cover, though it is hard not to be attracted to Brock Clarke’s most recent novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, what with its tongue-in-cheek title and burning orange background, the color of a Fire Lane warning sign.

But what of a first sentence?  Can we judge by that?  I find I often do, and it was Clarke’s juicy, dramatic, hilarious first line that sold me when I first pulled his late 2007 novel off the bookstore shelf:

“I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a hgh price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter.”

Thus begins Sam’s tragicomic tale, which, true to the novel’s title, sees the accidental arsonist’s life events intersecting with the homes of Dickinson (whose house, in real life, still stands, lest fans read Clarke and fret), Twain, Frost, and others.

No scribe is safe in Sam’s world.  He introduces us to a bitter literature professor who refers to Willa Cather as a c***, because, well, she “thinks all writers are c***s.”  He recalls that his mother would never let him read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird in the house “because they were so full of pity.”  Sam even makes fun of his own author, Brock Clarke, when he comes across Clarke’s earlier novelThe Ordinary White Boy in a bookstore:

“On the back it said that the author was a newspaper reporter from upstate New York.  I opened the novel, which began, ‘I was working as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York,’ and then I closed the book and put it back on the fiction shelf, which maybe wasn’t all that different from the memoir shelf after all …”

So apparently, Clarke allows his characters to judge by covers and first sentences, too!

Highly recommended, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England is silly-yet-subversive beach reading for the type of well-read literary nerd that is more likely to spend her summer vacation touring writers’ homes than actually going anywhere near a beach.