Burn This Book Review: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (2007, Brock Clarke)

I’ve been attending the library book club in my city for close to a decade. I often feel that I don’t read enough books, and preparing for the club forces me to add about a dozen each year. This particular group has a lot of regulars, and while we often disagree about books, for many reasons, I’ve never gotten angry with any of them about our differing opinions. Until last week, when the club discussed this book.

One of the reviews quoted on the cover calls it “Absurdly hilarious…Searingly funny.” That’s an incredibly optimistic assessment to live up to. And yet: this book reaches this bar and surpasses it. This is one of perhaps four really good books that I’ve read this year and if I kept a “personal best” list (which I don’t) it would earn a spot on it.

Unfortunately, of the dozen or so other book club readers present, feelings ran about like this: one other enthusiastic nod; three or four weak votes of approval; and the rest running the gamut from luke warm to tepid (no strong dislike, which might tell you something). The most baffling comments to me came from one reader who went on a moralistic rant for several minutes about how the book shouldn’t have used such a plot or title, because it could make readers think arson was funny and encourage them to commit it (…entirely missing several points of the novel, but let’s say no more about it). It seemed to me that those who didn’t appreciate the book were taken aback because they couldn’t handle this simple truth: the book held up a very clear mirror to professional and amateur literary types, not only writers but also would-be writers, readers, and (ahem) even those who attend book clubs.

Their lack of enthusiasm for this book pushed me to the edge of anger, although I kept my head (and my tongue). Why this anger? Because this is a great book. But…perhaps it can’t be understood as a great book if a reader doesn’t have a certain kind of background, and to certain depths. What do I mean? Let’s go through it quickly.

an-arsonists-guide-to-writers-homes-in-new-englandWithout giving much away, the novel follows Sam Pulsifer, a more-or-less average guy who at age 18 accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA, killing two people inside, and spent 10 years in prison for it. He’s been out for 10 years and has rebuilt a life for himself, but his past returns to haunt him when a victim of the original fire determines to get revenge. Then other writers’ homes in New England begin catching fire – with Sam as the prime suspect. The story is told in a style that mixes memoir and detective novel (a false “mem-noir?”) and is brilliant in its construction and humor.

A lot of folks don’t seem to get the jokes, and I think I understand why. Sam is the son of an English teacher and an academic editor, so he’s got a very high level of sophistication when it comes to literature and writing in general, even if he’s an inept boob at many other things (he’s a self described “bumbler,” which causes many of his cringe-eliciting woes throughout the book but frequently endears him to the reader at the same time).

Clarke is a writer and writing instructor. So he’s got an even higher level of sophistication when it comes to literature and writing than Sam, and he isn’t afraid to use it. As when he lances into memoirs and memoirists (as he does several times…and who can blame him? I share that pain.). As when he slashes at the celebrity-historical cult around famous writers and their houses. As when he skewers certain types of New Englanders. As when he muses on what determines if writing is good or bad, and what writing and reading might or might not do (and now he’s being funny, but terribly serious as well). He’s always on the mark, and the humor is dead-on for anyone with the right background. The professor of literature who despises literature? Anyone who’s ever studied literature or writing seriously – especially if they’ve taught it, too – will recognize how perfectly he’s nailed this character. We know her; sometimes we are her.

Summarizing this book isn’t my goal here, so forgive any sketchiness. Other reviews cover that. Or read the book yourself. I’d rather talk about why I enjoyed Clarke’s writing so much, and why I think writers should read this book (and why I’d expect most to enjoy it).

The book is a little slow to start – it’s engaging from page 1, but the first half of the story moves at a measured pace, only speeding up and racing toward a conclusion after the halfway mark. While the humor spoke to me from the outset, I only realized during the final 80 to 100 pages another reason why I was enjoying the book so much. It’s a funny book, yes, and it also pulls at the heart: you’ll feel for the narrator and just about all the other characters, no matter how much, at one turn or another, every one of them practically demands your scorn, contempt, or condemnation. I almost never use the word “poignant,” in any context, but it’s appropriate for this book.

But it’s not a ‘simply’ funny book, nor is it maudlin or trying too hard to make an emotional impact. The humor is subtle just as often as it’s overt, and the complex and contradictory emotional plays are built up slowly, revealed carefully, and completely earned by the narrator (and, therefore, even more well deserved by the author).

No, what makes this book so enjoyable is that it’s the opposite of an Ian McEwan novel. Which is to say a lot of things, but most importantly that the problems the characters make for themselves are not absurdly contrived and due entirely to a lack of communication that could have been resolved by normal human beings at many points in the story. Clarke’s characters, especially poor Sam, get into all sorts of trouble because they aren’t communicating, but with two important differences: it’s perfectly clear that the characters are making bad decisions in the moment (and they are usually aware of this fact) and it’s perfectly clear to the reader in just about every case that Clarke is taking the story down this route for deliberate comic effect. “How much worse could things get for our narrator? Let’s find out…”

I’ve read two of McEwan’s novels (Atonement and On Chesil Beach) and that’s more than enough, thanks very much. While the stories are very different, they share common themes. One, which I’ll spend no more words on, is that each of them borders on misogynistic, although in very different ways. Another is what concerns me here. Both of these novels depend on the fact that the main characters never make the effort to stop and talk to each other. They either don’t tell the truth, or they don’t tell the whole story, or they just never open their mouths and try to explain the true situation when there’s a chance to keep things going from bad to worse. They don’t merely miss opportunities to rectify or clarify, they seem to willfully revel in avoiding them or botching them. In Atonement, this problem leads ultimately to the unpleasant deaths of the book’s romantic leads. It’s even more blatant in On Chesil Beach. The entire book is predicated on miscommunication (or non-communication). At every turn in its (thankfully) scant 224 pages, most reasonable people will be practically screaming at the characters to just take a few seconds to talk to each other. Offer an explanation. Ask what the trouble is. Clear up some misconceptions and misunderstandings. Even, for Pete’s sake, apologize. But no: the characters keep blundering along, blithely (by the author’s hand) making the worst decision in every case, and therefore stringing together a tale that’s not just utterly implausible, but also downright annoying to read. A reader is unlikely to know anyone who is this much of a disaster in real life, and I pity the reader who gets pleasure from reading about the characters’ miserable choices and their agonizing internal languishing afterward. After two of McEwan’s books, both cheerless reading experiences, I won’t pick up another unless I’m paid to.

Clarke on the other hand. Oh, what a joy. His characters, especially long-suffering Sam, encounter many moments where a few words would clarify something, or resolve a problem, or at least make things less disastrous for all concerned. But Sam always takes the wrong turn. The beauty here is that, as a reader, you recognize this immediately. Sam, too, frequently recognizes that he’s taking a wrong turn (or that he’s already taken it, as the book is told in hindsight). And while you, the reader, are aware of this, you also are aware that this is Clarke’s doing — that he is looking out for you, and for Sam, and for the story as a whole, and that in order to do what’s best for all three of you he’s got to steer the story into more and more dangerous terrain, winking at you as he goes, resulting in both greater comic effect and a deeper emotional connection with the characters. It’s funny, but it’s tragic, and it produces a story that, unlike anything I’ve read from McEwan, is entertaining and enjoyable and, dare I say it, entirely believable within its own reality. That any of these things could happen to a normal person in the normal world is utterly unbelievable; that all of these things can and do happen to Sam and those around him is at the same time convincing and ultimately necessary for the trajectory of the novel.

I highly recommend this book. Writers and students of literature will get a kick out of the literature (and literary) jokes. New Englanders and those familiar with New England and its inhabitants will, too. In fact, anyone who was ever forced to read Ethan Frome or Huckleberry Finn or the works of any of numerous New England authors will likely crack a smile on more than one occasion. It’s the best combination of highbrow and lowbrow humor I’ve run across in a long time, but it’s still quite a serious book — I have a feeling that most readers, like me, will feel the hurts that Sam feels as the novel approaches its conclusion, and appreciate his predicament all the more for it.

It’s a very good book. Find time for it.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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