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

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The Independent Culture

A comic novel disguised as a memoir, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England begins with the confession note of Samuel Pulsifer, who burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts as a teenager and killed two people in the process: "It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt Rushmore of big gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me." It turns out though, that it really was an accident, and the earnest, narration of the self confessed "bumbler", Pulsifer, is a comforting presence throughout.

Having spent his time in prison hoarding his memories and biding his time, he emerges 10 years on, rootless and friendless, determined to commandeer respect from society and from himself. Yet other than a temporary interlude of domestic bliss – he marries a girl after a brief courtship, who knows little about him, and nothing of his crimes – he is assailed by his past at every turn. His problems, and the attendant plight of his parents, who suffer a ruination of sorts after his incarceration, are a counterpoint to the more powerful themes of the consequences of errors of judgment, and the power that stories and fables can have over us. Implicit in his re-telling of how his mother passed on her gift for storytelling to him, a beneficence for which he is grateful, is the suggestion that her oft-repeated horror tales of the Emily Dickinson House, with its "last gasps of children vanished and sadly forgotten, of the last drop, drop, drop of bodies, down a lonely and unforgiving chasm," are somehow, through a combination of Freudian impulse and morbid fascination, a partial vindication for his act of recklessness.

If verging on the fantastical at times, unlike so much comic fiction, this novel is not spoilt by a tendency to drain the humour by over-explaining the jokes. In fact Clarke manages, with considerable dexterity and flourish, to pull out of the fire a series of absurdist scenarios and radically screwball characters that never stretch credulity. This is partly because the high drama is mixed with some delightfully plaintive meditations on family life, and partly because Clarke lands precise blows on some legitimate targets: most notably the literary establishment and the memoir genre. Significantly, Clarke is currently writing a book on one of America's greatest memoirists, Frederick Exley, the author of the brilliant A Fan's Notes.

If the stream-of-consciousness, reflexive analysis of Pulsifer begins to pall a little now and then, the book never gives up on one of its most attractive virtues, the quality that makes it at times, unbelievably funny: that Sam Pulsifer may well be a "bumbler" but he is also inhumanly pre-disposed to attract, seek and absorb all manner of adversity. Undoubtedly the most selfless, unluckiest arsonist you'll ever come across.

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