Clarke, Brock. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: A Novel Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2007
Random House Audio, narrated by Daniel Passer
This quirky novel is about stories–the stories we tell about our lives and about ourselves, and the stories we tell to others and to ourselves.
The story’s narrator is Sam Pulsifer, whose mother is a high school English teacher and whose father is an editor for a small press. Sam therefore grew up surrounded by books and the stories they contain. Sam’s mother made him read literary classics. For a three-year period during Sam’s childhood his father was gone, traveling around the country visiting interesting places, including the stadium of every major league baseball team. Sam knows about his father’s adventures because he regularly received postcards from his father detailing his travels. It was during his father’s absence that his mother began telling Sam intriguing stories about the Emily Dickinson house, located in their hometown.
One night when he was 18 Sam sneaked into the Emily Dickinson house for a smoke and accidentally burned the house down. There were two people, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman, in the house at the time, and they died in the fire. Sam spent 10 years in prison. When he was released he went back to his parents’ house for a few months, but things just didn’t seem the same there; he could tell that his parents didn’t really want him around. So Sam went off to college, where he majored in Packaging Science. He met and married Anne Marie and had two children. Sam told Anne Marie that his parents were dead–that they had died in a house fire. Then one day a man turns up at Sam’s house and announces that he’s Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who had died in the Emily Dickenson house fire. Thomas tells Anne Marie the truth about her husband’s past, and she throws Sam out.
When Thomas Coleman confronts Sam, the thing that really infuriates him is the particular lie Sam had told Anne Marie. By telling her that his parents had died in a house fire, Sam had commandeered Thomas’s story and tried to pass it off as his own. Because of this lie, the story of the perfect life Sam thinks he has found begins to unravel. Sam returns to his parents’ house, where he finds things have changed dramatically since he was last there about 10 years earlier. In the meantime, someone starts setting fires to the houses of other writers in New England. Sam decides to find out who this arsonist is.
That this book is about the power of stories becomes evident early on. At his trial for burning down the Emily Dickinson house, Sam protests that it was an accident and that all the stories his mother had told him prompted him to break into the house. At sentencing, the judge told Sam to ponder the following question while serving his sentence:
“It’s an interesting question, is it not? Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the intended one, is it then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all? . . . For instance, Mr. Pulsifer, can a story actually be blamed for arson and murder?” (p. 71)
When Sam returns to his parents’ house after Anne Marie kicks him out, he makes up a story to explain to himself the changes he finds there. When he sets out to discover who is now setting fire to writers’ houses, he consciously patterns his behavior after that of famous detectives he’s read about in novels. During his investigation he meets a professor of American literature who hates literature because she fears becoming a character in a story, particularly one of Willa Cather’s female characters or Mark Twain’s Aunt Polly. There are numerous allusions to literature and some mild satire. Harry Potter devotees, although not explicitly named, take a hit. And, at one point, Sam visits Book Warehouse, where he finds a book group discussing a book in the cafe: “They weren’t talking about the book, not exactly; that’s the first thing I found out. Instead they were talking about how they felt” (p. 83). The title of the book under discussion is Listen, and the dust jacket asks readers to ponder questions such as “How does this book make you feel about the Human Condition?” (p. 85). From the cafe Sam wanders into the store’s memoir section:
After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn? Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves? I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs. I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book). There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself. There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs: A Memoirist’s Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like. (p. 88)
Much of this novel’s literary self-consciousness is humorous. But at the end the novel takes a serious turn when Sam, now wiser, undertakes the work of writing his life story. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the ending. But An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England illuminates how we all use story to make sense of our lives and, finally, of ourselves.
© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown