An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, By Brock Clarke

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The Independent Culture

This is one of those novels that begins with an energy and confidence that picks you up and wings you along, only to leave you struggling to get free when said energy and confidence become too much.

Sam Pulsifer has done 10 years in prison for setting fire to Emily Dickinson's home – something he claims was an accident – during which two people, who'd crept up stairs to have sex on Dickinson's bed, met their demise. Yes, the humour in this book is decidedly black. Now Sam is free and happily married with kids, his nemesis, the dead couple's son, tracks him down and threatens to expose him. Sam lies to his wife to cover up the truth, flees, and somehow ends up incarcerated for the same old crime – setting fire to a writer's home – all over again.

Sam is enduring an existential nightmare here, unable to escape his fate no matter what he tries to do. But the way Brock Clarke is forced to twist and contrive in order to give fate the upper hand is unconvincing, and began to irritate me long before Sam landed back in prison.

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