Pop Culture Princess

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Monday, August 27, 2007

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is a red hot read for all seasons

With summer slowly fading into autumn,there will be a few weeks of flux in terms of looking for just the right book to help ease your mind along into that right seasonal mode. One of those books that should just hit the spot is Brock Clarke's new novel,An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England,which introduces you to one of the best literary sad sacks of our time and his name is Sam Pulsifer.

When Sam was eighteen,he "accidently" set fire to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst which unintentionally killed two of the tour guides(who were using one of the bedrooms for some afterhours fun). After Sam's prison term was up,he went on with his life,got married,had two children and kept his family totally in the dark about his past,even to the point of claiming that his mother and father were dead and gone.

One day,Sam gets a surprise visitor at his doorstep,Thomas Coleman,the son of the two folks who died in the Dickinson house fire. Thomas demands an apology from Sam,which he delievers on the spot,but that's not good enough or even convincing enough to calm Coleman down. He starts a campaign to ruin Sam's life and force him to admit the truth about his past,starting with Sam's wife Anne Marie. Sam returns from a business trip to find that Anne Marie now believes that Sam has been cheating on her with Thomas' wife(a fiction created by Thomas to get Sam to confess)and instead of setting her straight about the whole mess,lets her believe the lie and goes home to his parents still living in Amherst.

Turns out that Thomas may be the least of Sam's probelms,as he comes home to find that his school teacher mother has given up on books and taken up drinking with his father instead. Also,as soon as Sam moves back into Amherst,writer's houses are being torched in the area,coincidently certain writer's homes that were specially requested by folks who wrote to Sam after his conviction and whose letters were saved
by Sam's father,who was not shy about sharing them with others.

Naturally,Sam is the number one suspect and while being dogged by arson detective Wilson to admit his guilt,Sam starts up his own investigation(which he admits is not easy,since his mother didn't allow him to read mysteries when he was younger and he doesn't really know all the rules there) to find out who did. During his hunt for the real firestarter and to get Thomas Coleman out of his life,Sam stumbles upon a number of secrets and lies about the lives of those around as well as Morgan Taylor,the ringleader of a group of bond analysts Sam knew in prison,who are looking for material to write a successful memoir about and wants Sam to train them in the art of literary arson.

The plot description I've just given may make this book sound like a thriller but it plays out more like one of those great Alexander Payne movies,where the run of the mill leading man gets in way over his head in a chain of events that he shouldn't have gotten mixed up in the first place. Sam is a self described "bumbler" who goes with the flow much too often,mainly to avoid confrontation and says whatever pops into his head out loud at times when he really,really shouldn't. He also has some very clever insights into the true nature of folks who insist on acting literary as opposed to being really appreciative of what literature is and isn't.

Clarke makes Sam very believable and someone to root for,despite the number of times that you may want him to snap out of his self imposed complancy,for his own good. Clarke also slips in some very wicked satire about the current state of the book world today,with it's memoir mania,insistence upon holding up depressing narratives as "art" and stylish hatred of the classics being taught in college courses.

Arsonist's Guide is a clever,witty read that doesn't sacrifice good characterization for an easy punchline and gives the reader an intelligently elegant tale about what can happen to those who live inside their heads for so long without truly reaching out to deal with the people in their life outside the mind. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is just a fall read;Clarke's novel is available right now and is truly a Book For All Seasons.

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