An Arsonists Guide to Writers Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

Sam Pulsipher has many problems. Not only did he burn down Emily Dickinson’s home, but he also killed two people. And while he’s married and started to raise a family, the son of the victims begins to make life difficult for him. And then other writers’ homes start to go up in flames.

Sam’s fictional memoir, which slavishly obeys the clichés of the genre, is one of the funniest books of this fall. Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England unsparingly anatomizes our penchant for narrating our lives — our bizarre insistence that our life doesn’t count until it fits a prepackaged set of cultural conventions.

An Arsonist’s Guide is a literary funhouse, and its best trick is how readily Clarke makes us believe in the gag. Sam is such an engaging bumbler that one’s heart goes out to him, one wants to believe in his story, even at those moments when it’s absolutely clear that we’re being had. (“I was just pretending to believe that my father had had a stroke.”)

It is easy to forget Clarke’s gamesmanship, or, to make this point the other way around: The novel plays so many games that one sort of loses one’s place. It’s an exhilarating disorientation. Two examples stand out in particular: Sam’s fondness for aphorisms, and the novel’s alleged sendup of suburbia.

No on in Sam’s family functions well. His parents banish him after his escapades in applied firestarting, and when he finally returns to them, they’ve both become astonishing drunkards. He keeps his wife and kids in the dark about his criminal history, eventually falsely confessing to an affair rather than owning up about the arson. (She still kicks him out of the house.)

As a result, Sam’s got a lot of time to think about relationships and their discontents, and so he loads up his narratives with twee aphorisms about human nature: “Why do we hurt our parents the way we do? There’s no way to make sense of it except as practice for then hurting our children the way we do.” Or: “maybe misunderstanding is what makes it possible to be a family in the first place.” Or, best of all: “we all know that to be a son is to lie to yourself about your father.”

Clarke’s humor at these moments is somehow both delicate and complex. There’s straight satire of the memoirist’s impulse to tell us what life is, of course. More than this, any time Sam promulgates one of these aphorisms, it’s a sign he’s misconstrued the situation — the “insight” is just a screen for Sam’s delusions. They’re never earned insights.

Finally, Clarke is winking at the way we rewrite our own familial stories into cultural scripts about parents and children. Despite Clarke’s evident irony, the offical reader’s guide to the book still lists these moments as serious moral and psychological reflections (see question 9). I don’t deny that the book has such reflections, but they’re not embedded in Sam’s “wisdom.”

Clarke’s beguiling narrator can work against him. Some readers, for example, have complained that the novel’s satirical topics aren’t always well-chosen; that, for example, denouncing suburbia as a wasteland of superstores is pretty well-trodden turf. While it’s true that there is no end of such stories, that’s somewhat to the side of Clarke’s satire, which is unfailingly directed at Sam:

Every Saturday I reminded myself to remain fully clothed, but once I started sweating I could never remember to keep my shirt on and in this way fell into my own little unintentional piece of rebellion. I was like the patriot who kept forgetting not to dump the king’s tea into the harbor. This is not to say that because I sweated and took off my shirt and unintentionally rebelled, I was better than my neighbors. I wasn’t. I can’t remember any of their names, but they were all good people. I hope they’re well.

Certainly it’s the case that Sam thinks he’s saying something interesting here about suburban anomie, and the putatively complex folkways of suburban lawncare. But surely that trite observation isn’t Clarke’s point? Our attention ought to be directed not at suburbia, but at how Sam experiences other people. His complacent narcissism — which, we’re reminded over and over again in the book, is almost the default psychological state of the memoirist — is Clarke’s constant topic.

The comic brilliance of this novel arises less from Sam Pulsipher’s wit than from his sheer inability to recognize the import of his life, or even of the story he’s telling about his life, which is not quite the same thing.

I have some reservations about An Arsonist’s Guide, mostly having to do with the ending. The novel’s riotous indifference toward conventional narrative and its skepticism about the causal machinery of plots put Clarke in a tight spot. It’s difficult to give such a book a proper ending, the impulses being to just let the narrative dissolve or to reach through the looking glass for an ending that would be emotionally satisfying in conventional terms. I don’t want to give away the ending, but will simply note it doesn’t quite work.

Let’s not end on that note, however: An Arsonist’s Guide is a splendid book: original and funny, smart and dark. Clarke’s book ought to make us think about the stories we tell ourselves to keep the howling demons at bay and, hopefully, to laugh honestly at them for what they really are.

RATING 7 / 10