Published in 2007 byAlgonquin Books of Chapel Hill, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England is a very interesting book. Author Brock Clarke tells the story from the perspective of Sam Pulsifer, an infamous hooligan convicted on charges of arson and double homicide when he accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Sam returns home after serving his time and is shocked to find dozens of letters requesting that he burn down the homes of other famous New England writers. He declines continued criminal activity and tries to cobble together a normal life for himself. Ten years later Sam encounters the son the of the two people who were killed in the Emily Dickinson House fire. Shortly thereafter the home of another prominent New England writer is set on fire and Sam is blamed for it. He sets out to find out who is really behind the crimes and prove his own innocence.
I decided to read this book after hearing the premise described in the Writer’s Digest The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. It was held up as a model of satire and I can certainly say it was a strange book with some oddball humor. Sam’s rather quirky perspective on life leads to some pretty interesting comparisons and there were a lot of chuckleworthy moments. As for the writing itself, I have some concerns.
Sam is a self-described bumbler. I found this story difficult to enjoy because as I read I was constantly having to decipher Sam’s bumbling in addition to trying to piece together clues to solve the mystery he is confronted with. As a first person narrative it was frustrating to have the only voiced character be largely unreliable. I frequently had to set the book down because it was painful to live in Sam’s head, trying to think the way he thinks.
When the last few chapters of the book come together the ending is very surprising, and resolves the various plot lines very satisfactorily. However, in my opinion, after slogging through so much muck with Sam as the viewpoint character it made the big reveal pretty lackluster.
There are two weaknesses in this book. First, I felt the way the viewpoint of Sam was presented added confusion to the narrative without creating tension for me as a reader. In other words, Sam was constantly stumped and instead of deepening the mystery and making me want to see it resolved it made me angry that he was so stupid. That isn’t to say that the mystery wasn’t complex and well thought out, (it was) but because Sam was an idiot I was pretty much fine with him never resolving his problems (I’m kind of a sadist that way).
The second problem I had was the characters in general. As a reader I felt no connection, no common understanding with any of the characters. This made it hard for me to be emotionally engaged in the events of the plot. Sam starts the book as a guy who was convicted for accidentally starting a fire. I sort of felt bad about that, but after I spent thirty minutes with the guy it wouldn’t have surprised me if he accidentally set fire to something while tying his shoes. He had very, very little internal motivation and mental strength. It was like following a sixth grader as he investigated the culprit of a cookie jar heist. Only they upped the ante on cookie thieving from a timeout to twenty to life.
As a writer, I learned a lot about viewpoint from reading this novel. I would encourage any aspiring novelists to take a look at An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. As a reader, I wasn’t satisfied. I feel like this story has interesting humor and a fantastic premise, but doesn’t deliver on character. I need a reason to love a dim witted character, and I didn’t get one from this novel.