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#98: An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

By Brian Prisco | Books | June 25, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | June 25, 2009 |

Man, I so wished this was a better book. It’s like watching a friend in a track meet come in fourth place. You don’t even get a medal or points, but you still beat the hell out of most everyone else. And Clarke’s novel is just that, a hell of an effort that just barely falls short of being unbearably awesome.

Sam Pulsifer did a bad bad thing. He burned down the Emily Dickinson house when he was 18, accidentally killing two people. He spent ten years in prison, was released, couldn’t return to his old life in Amherst, Mass, where he was hounded by outraged academians, so he attempted to start over. Sam’s a terrible narrator, who seems vaguely autistic, but unlike the brilliance of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime , here the narrator’s just coming across as socially inept and awkward and ridiculous. Most of the novel I found myself clutching a fist and shaking it with frustration, which makes it hard to hold the pages open. Sam’s such a fucking idiot, and he keeps fucking up and making things worse for himself.

Sam never told his current wife about his former life, going so far as to even pretend his parents are dead instead of alcoholic ex-academics. So naturally, his old life comes back to haunt him. Former prisoners, the son of the people he murdered, and the looming spectre of a person trying to burn down other author’s homes follow him everywhere, destroying his life. And Sam seems reluctantly content with fucking up things to offer the assist.

My biggest issue with the novel was the use of memoir style. I don’t mind flashbacks, but I fucking hate it where authors do that lingering cluedrop. Where events are unfolding, and the author will mention what’s going to happen next. He keeps ruining the next event, with comments like “And it would be the last time I saw my parents again” or “And I should have known better, because the Twain house would be burned next.” It’s distracting, and aggravating. If he had just let the events unfold instead of trying to pull off some sort of bullshit Brechtian attempt at contemplative narration, it’d be so much better.

While the scathing commentary on the intelligentsia and academics in general are amusing, it sort of falls apart around the frustrating hump of a narrator. It’s not a terrible novel, but you can see where with a few minor adjustments it could have been fucking brilliant.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Prisco’s reviews, check out his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

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