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


Sam Pulsifer, the narrator of Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, was born a "bumbler" with the life plaint, "It was an accident." Sam accidentally burns down the Emily Dickinson House as a teen, serves time in prison, puts his past behind, and then sees his suburban life fall apart when someone starts torching other writers' homes. Suspicion falls on Sam, and he struggles to clear his name and salvage the family he deceived.

An Arsonist's Guide is a tragedy in the classic sense of the word. A man with an idyllic life has a destructive flaw - in Sam's case, his inability to tell the truth. This flaw undoes him and his fate unwinds, despite all his efforts to patch things together again.

The difference is that Clarke's tragedy is also hilarious. It is the kind of humor that startles and then makes you think because it gently mocks the human condition - our inability to speak, to love, and to act. Clarke illuminates his novel with flashes of insight ("Sometimes the lies you tell are less frightening than the loneliness you might feel if you stopped telling them"), and wistful questions ("What happens to love?").

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Clarke's novel is a story about "hearts with holes in them, holes that are in various stages of excavation and filling." It shows the inadequacy of humanity - the way words, love, and the stories we tell to explain ourselves fall short.


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