In his arrestingly titled second novel, Brock Clarke invites us to ponder the spell literature can cast and the sometimes incendiary power of books. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is a tenderhearted black comedy that's reminiscent of classic works like John Irving's The World According to Garp.
Sam Pulsifer, the novel's narrator, is 18 years old when he's given a 10-year prison sentence for accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House, killing a young couple engaged in a tryst in an upstairs bedroom. After his release, Sam enrolls in college, abandoning an English major for a degree in packaging science. He marries, fathers two children and moves into a suburban development called Camelot. It seems he has put his unfortunate past behind him and is well positioned to capture his slice of the American dream.
What Sam discovers as he embarks on his idyllic new life is that while the past may be over, it never truly disappears. Believing he's a pyromaniac, more than 100 people have written letters urging Sam to torch the houses of other famous New England writers. When those houses become the targets of arsonists, Sam finds himself the prime suspect and he assumes the role of amateur detective, hoping to uncover the criminal's identity. In the end, the touching truths Sam unearths about himself, his family and even life itself turn out to be more moving and profound than his solution to the arson mystery.
What makes An Arsonist's Guide such an engaging and wildly original work is the captivating voice of Sam Pulsifer. His instincts are admirable and pure, and yet he's consistently saddled with the consequences of his bad choices. Interspersed with his wry musings on the events unfolding around him are hilarious comments on literary phenomena like the explosion of the memoir genre and reading groups. Like all of literature's most compelling characters, it's hard to say goodbye to him when we turn the final page.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.