Book Review: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke


An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (2007) by Brock Clarke was the February selection for my alumni chapter book club.  It was a divisive book for sure as 1 book club member hated, 1 liked it and 1 said she didn’t like but decided it wasn’t so bad as we talked about.  I’m in the “like it” crowd, perhaps the one who liked it most of the four of us.  It has a lot of the things that appeal to me – New England, literary allusions, satire, dysfunctional families, and quirkiness.  Lots of quirkiness.

The basic gist of the story is that at the age of 18 the narrator Sam Pulsifer burned down the Emily Dickinson house killing an amorous couple inside.  He served 10 years in prison, then went to college, got married and tried to live a normal life raising a family in a drab suburb outside of Amherst.  Then, mysteriously, other houses of writers in New England suffer from arson and Sam’s life falls apart.

Sam is the ultimate unreliable narrator and everything he reveals about himself is that he doesn’t have much in the way of social skills.  At first I was very irritated by him, but was eventually won over once I got into the groove of the book.  Still I can understand what my colleagues didn’t like about the book.  He sets out to solve this mystery with no real clue of how to do it. In that sense it’s reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, although the narrator of that book had Asperger’s.

What won me over is the hillarious asides and the satrical portrayals of New England archetypes: a scruffy Brahmin, uber-liberal academics, and the reserved, independent New Hampshire man.  Clarke both parodies these literary characteristics and sets his characters free from being just characters.

So my final judgment is that this is a fun and humorous novel that will appeal to those with a literary bent.

An arsonist’s guide to writers’ homes in New England : a novel / by Brock Clarke.
Publisher: Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books Of Chapel Hill, 2007.
ISBN: 9781565125513 : HRD $23.95
1565125517 : HRD $23.95
Description: 303 p. ; 24 cm.
Edition: 1st ed.

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