An Arsonist's Guide

to Writers' Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and this particular book is a perfect case in point. Other reviewers have, it would seem, described it as ‘a novel disguised as a memoir’, when a more appropriate précis might be that it is a detective story about a novel disguised as a memoir. Further, in contrast to its being ‘wildly’ or ‘unbelievably’ funny, it’s actually a rather subtle black comedy that is decidedly unlikely to provoke uncontrollable guffaws when reading it on crowded train journeys - but it certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Brock Clarke - An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Now we’ve got that cleared up a bit, onto the plot. As you may imagine from the title, the story concerns a series of arson attempts - some more successful than others - on writers’ homes in New England, and the multiplicity of reasons that the arsonist(s) and observers have had for burning these places down.

The story centres on Sam Pulsifer, the arsonist writing the guide. We can think of him as a kind of reluctant arsonist, perceived to be a fire-crazed killer, yet the real Sam that we get to know quite quickly is nothing of the sort and is perhaps more a victim of circumstance. Sam’s life, as he tells it in this book (which is where we get the ‘novel disguised as a memoir’ thing), appears at first glance to be the product of a series of chance meetings and random opportunities, though as he (and so we) find out, other forces have been at work shaping his fate. Just as other characters misjudge Sam, Sam misjudges the other characters, throwing in an enjoyable element of mystery and inviting the reader to repeatedly re-examine what we thought we knew time and time again. Sam spends much of this tale on the hunt for the real arsonists behind the series of arson attempts on writers homes in New England, whilst simultaneously searching to better understand those closest to him, who simultaneously are the most distant.

It’s an engaging read, but the style may not be to everyone’s taste – it feels rather deliberate and clunky, perhaps reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It isn’t altogether surprising that the style of writing is so pronounced, considering the author, Brock Clarke, teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Clarke’s appreciation of English Literature flows throughout the story, and it might not be too far fetched to imagine him framing his critiques of certain authors by setting his characters to burn down their houses.

It isn’t just the style of writing that stands out. The main characters are notable for being a very visible blend of dark and light, although none of them are terribly likeable. This un-likeability factor makes it rather difficult for the reader to care about the misfortunes that beleaguer them, which in turn makes the story feel a bit laboured despite the chapters being well written and short enough to perfectly fit the commute home.

It’s an enjoyable and quirky story, definitely worth getting out of a library or borrowing from a friend, perhaps not worth the cover price and especially not in hardback. And if you’re given it as a gift, don’t crease the spine and be ready to list it on

three out of five