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

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

3.4 27
by Brock Clarke
     
 

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A lot of remarkable things have happened in the life of Sam Pulsifer, the hapless hero of this incendiary novel, beginning with the ten years he spent in prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and unwittingly killing two people. emerging at age twenty-eight, he creates a new life and identity as a husband and father. But when the homes of… See more details below

Overview


A lot of remarkable things have happened in the life of Sam Pulsifer, the hapless hero of this incendiary novel, beginning with the ten years he spent in prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and unwittingly killing two people. emerging at age twenty-eight, he creates a new life and identity as a husband and father. But when the homes of other famous New England writers suddenly go up in smoke, he must prove his innocence by uncovering the identity of this literary-minded arsonist.

In the league of such contemporary classics as A Confederacy of Dunces and The World According to Garp, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is an utterly original story about truth and honesty, life and the imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Associated Press Staff
"In the spectacularly titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, Brock Clarke gives us a sharp new novel that reads like a memoir, a scathing satire that reminds us of the horrors of truth-telling. . . . It's a crisp story that moves along like a detective novel. But what makes it come alive is Clarke's sharp wit, dropping funny, deadpan observations about suburbia . . . and literary life throughout the book. . . . Beyond the vicious satire, however, there is serious business in the Arsonist's Guide. Clarke has a lovely sense of the meanings that hide behind what we say and the contradictions of personality. An Arsonist's Guide is a smart novel about people who desperately need to reinvent themselves, perhaps without knowing who they were in the first place."—

—Associated Press

From the Publisher
"It's nearly impossible not to care about and laugh with Sam.   ...He appeals to the fool in everyone and comforts us  in  knowing that we're not alone."—Chicago Tribune

"Sizzles." - The Washington Post Book World

Paste Magazine
"Brock Clarke flames entire genres of fiction in this clever and often hilarious tale."—Paste magazine
Utne
"A witty, intensely clever piece of writing that scrutinizes our relationship with stories and storytelling. . . . Clarke composes with panache, packing his pages with offbeat humor, vibrant characters, and tender scenes."—Utne
BookPage
"A tenderhearted black comedy that's reminiscent of classic works like John Irving's The World According to Garp. . . . What makes An Arsonist's Guide such an engaging and wildly original work is the captivating voice of Sam Pulsifer . . . Like all of literature's most compelling characters, it's hard to say goodbye to him when we turn the final page."—-Bookpage
Village Voice
"As a title, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England has a lot to live up to. Happily, Brock Clarke's hilarious new novel makes good on its title and then some, with a loopily shambolic narrative as captivating as its feckless firebug narrator, Sam Pulsifer. . . . It's the perfect end-of-summer book, funny and sharp and smart enough to ease the transition from beach to boardroom. Just don't leave it near a pack of matches." —Village Voice
People Magazine
"Funny, profound...A seductive book with a payoff on every page."—People
Time Out Chicago
A "smart, witty novel-staged-as-memoir . . . Clarke nails the suburban landscape in high satiric fashion. . . . Beneath satiric pokes at suburban America, the memoir craze and literary culture in general (the very title of the book is a winking reference to a popular literary form), there is honest heart here. . . . It's a blast¬its story line rollicking and often absurd, its themes satisfyingly hefty. Clarke keeps the plot clipping along, each chapter launching you right into the next, and ultimately delivers an ending that upholds the intellectual comedy of the book and its themes (parent-child bonds, the consequences of mistakes, the flimsiness of genre) while lobbing us a few in the soft spots."—Time Out Chicago
USA Today
"Sam is the narrator of Brock Clarke's absurd if weirdly compelling faux 'memoir,' which takes aim at the danger of stories—at least false ones . . . [AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE] gets at some unexpectedly poignant emotional truths."—-USA Today
The New York Times
"Wildly, unpredictably funny... As cheerfully oddball as its title."—The New York Times
The San Francisco Chronicle
"Like all great novels, it poses exceedingly difficult questions about how we - real people - manage our existences. . . . The word "story" - with its many implications (fiction, nonfiction, memoir, lie, truth) - is the key to "The Arsonist's Guide." . . . A novel that entertains and indicts in equal part is decidedly rare; one that manages to do so on literary grounds while its protagonist is consistently hammered is even rarer, and its own sort of joy. . . . Clarke's intelligence loops seamlessly through Sam's narration; this is just one of the book's many strengths. . . . In our world, it is Clarke's novel itself, a wonderful book."—San Francisco Chronicle
Elle Magazine
A "darkly hilarious, high-spirited mock-memoir mystery."—Elle
New York Times Book Review
"No writer's house—neither Frost's, nor Twain's, nor Wharton's, nor Thoreau's—is safe in this comic whodunit."—Editor’s Choice in the 9/30 issue of New York Times Book Review
San Diego Union-Tribune
"Sam Pulsifer is now one of the great naifs of American literature. . . . [A] rollicking, hilarious and subtly heartbreaking novel . . . [and] at the same time a wrenching examination of what happens when you pry up the floorboards, flake off the stucco, open up the books and see what's really going on between husband and wife, parents and children, friends and lovers."—San Diego Union-Tribune
Washington City Paper
"An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is a novel in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, which is to say it's bizarre, human, funny, and sick. . . . For a guy who hates writers' houses, he sure can write."—Washington City Paper
The New York Sun
"A brisk, unpredictable story populated with distinct, if frequently absurd, characters. . . Mr. Clarke is a very talented writer."—The New York Sun
Chicago Tribune
"It's nearly impossible not to care about and laugh with Sam. ...He appeals to the fool in everyone and comforts us in knowing that we're not alone."—Chicago Tribune
Washington Post Book World
"Sizzles." - The Washington Post Book World
David Bowman
An Arsonist's Guide begins with an epigraph from Muriel Spark that seems to be used to imply that this novel, too, is autobiographical. The book's first chapter began as a short story published seven years ago in The New England Review; at the end of that version, the narrator promised never again to tell the arsonist's story of Emily Dickinson's house. It is to comic fiction's advantage that Clarke reneged. An Arsonist's Guide contains sentences and images that could stand beside the works of the former owners of the literary residences put to flame. There is a single sentence of dialogue (unprintable here) that will paralyze any Willa Cather scholar. There is a lone paragraph describing a woman's head aflame—"Then she pulled out a lighter," part of it reads, "flicked it, and grabbed a clump of her hair"—that could compel Stephen King to increase the fire insurance on his own New England house.
—The New York Times Book Review
Ron Charles
…Clarke's novel sizzles. This straight-faced, postmodern comedy scorches all things literary, from those moldy author museums to the excruciating question-and-answer sessions that follow public readings. There are no survivors here: women's book clubs, literary critics, Harry Potter fans, bookstores, English professors, memoir writers, librarians, Jane Smiley, even the author himself—they're all singed under Clarke's crisp wit. He's published a few novels before this one and garnered some attention for his short stories, but An Arsonist's Guide suggests that Clarke is a dangerous man, though not in the way the Lenox police feared: Don't shelve his book with other novels. Keep it away from fumes of pretension.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is as cheerfully oddball as its title. Its cover art includes a tiny cartoon sketch of a green-frocked literary lioness garlanded in flames, and that captures the irreverence of the author, Brock Clarke's, enterprise. Although it is his fourth book, it feels like the bright debut of an ingeniously arch humorist, one whose hallmark is a calm approach to insanely improbable behavior.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Clarke's fourth book (after the story collection Carrying the Torch) is the delightfully dark story of Sam Pulsifer, the "accidental arsonist and murderer" narrator who leads readers through a multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life. Growing up in Amherst, Mass., with an editor for a father and an English teacher for a mother, Sam was fed endless stories that fueled (literally and figuratively) the rest of his life. Thus, the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, story and reality become the landscape for amusing and provocative adventures that begin when, at age 18, Sam accidentally torches the Emily Dickinson Homestead, killing two people. After serving 10 years, Sam tries to distance himself from his past through college, employment, marriage and fatherhood, but he eventually winds up back in his parents' home, separated from his wife and jobless. When more literary landmarks go up in flames, Sam is the likely suspect, and his determination to find the actual arsonist uncovers family secrets and more than a bit about human nature. Sam is equal parts fall guy and tour guide in this bighearted and wily jolt to the American literary legacy. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

When Sam Pulsifer's parents separated for three years during his childhood, his mother lied about his father's whereabouts and also told Sam ghost stories about the Emily Dickinson House in his hometown of Amherst, MA. At age 18, he broke into the house one night to verify these stories, got spooked by a noise, dropped a lit cigarette, burned down the house, and unwittingly killed its two occupants. After ten years in a minimum security prison, Sam moved to the nearby suburbs to live an anonymous life, attend college, marry, and raise children. All is well until the son of the couple who died in the fire shows up on his doorstep, and fires begin breaking out at the homes of other New England writers. While trying to unravel the mystery of the fires, Sam uncovers the deceptions that have molded his life. Clarke (Ordinary White Boy) has created a character feebly struggling against fate in a situation both sad and funny, believable and preposterous. It's a setting so bizarre that the clear moral lesson smacks of sarcasm. In the end, however, this quirky story is entertaining and readable. Recommended.
—Joanna M. Burkhardt

Kirkus Reviews
A subversively compelling, multilayered novel about the profound impact of literature (perhaps negative as well as positive). On one level, this is a book about the writing of a book, detailing the experiences that have inspired narrator Sam Pulsifer to compose a volume with the same title as this one. As a teenager, Sam took a tour of his hometown's Emily Dickinson house. When he returned that night, he accidentally burned it down, killing two who were staying upstairs. Though Sam presents himself as an eternal innocent, doing his best to put this unfortunate incident behind him, his narrative offers the perspectives of others who suggest Sam isn't who he appears to be, and that there's no such thing as an accident. On another level, this is a story about stories-the stories that Sam feels sealed his fate, the stories by which we live our lives, the stories we tell ourselves. As a loving father and husband and a dutiful son following his prison sentence, Sam does his best to write his life's story anew, yet he discovers that, in the narratives of others, arson is what defines his character. When a series of other legendary New England literary domiciles are torched, even Sam starts wondering how or whether he is involved. Rendered masterfully by Clarke (What We Won't Do, 2001, etc.), Sam's narrative tone is so engagingly guileless that the reader can't help but empathize with him, even as his life begins to fall apart within the causal connections of these fires. Sam ultimately forces himself to play detective (admitting that the mystery genre is one he never read), while recognizing that he might well be the criminal he is investigating. Is Sam an unconscious arsonist? Is he the productof a dysfunctional (though decidedly bookish) family? Is someone trying to set him up? Can the reader trust Sam? Can Sam trust himself?A serious novel that is often very funny and will be a page-turning pleasure for anyone who loves literature. Agent: Elizabeth Sheinkman/Curtis Brown UK
Associated Press
"In the spectacularly titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, Brock Clarke gives us a sharp new novel that reads like a memoir, a scathing satire that reminds us of the horrors of truth-telling. . . . It's a crisp story that moves along like a detective novel. But what makes it come alive is Clarke's sharp wit, dropping funny, deadpan observations about suburbia . . . and literary life throughout the book. . . . Beyond the vicious satire, however, there is serious business in the Arsonist's Guide. Clarke has a lovely sense of the meanings that hide behind what we say and the contradictions of personality. An Arsonist's Guide is a smart novel about people who desperately need to reinvent themselves, perhaps without knowing who they were in the first place."--

—Associated Press

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565126145
Publisher:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
09/02/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
317
Sales rank:
254,784
Product dimensions:
8.02(w) x 5.46(h) x 0.91(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Brock Clarke is our generation's Richard Ford, destined to be as influential and as celebrated. And his arsonist, Sam Pulsifer, is an Everyman surburban nomad, a literary misadventurer who is as insightful and doomed as he is heartbreakingly hilarious. I love this book"—Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment

"This is a sad, funny, absurd, and incredibly moving novel. Its comic mournnfulness, its rigorous, breakneck narrative, delight. . . . Clarke [has] given us a wonderful book about life, literature, and the anxieties of their influence."—Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land

"While I was reading this dark, funny, tragic novel, I would look at the people around me and feel sorry for them because they weren't occupying the same world I was; they weren't living as I was, inside the compelling, off-kilter atmosphere of Brock Clarke's pages. This is the best book I’ve read in a long time." — Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel

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