On the treachery, sedutions of narrative

The Baltimore Sun

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

By Brock Clarke

Algonquin Books / 320 pages/ $23.95

Brock Clarke's darkly comic new novel begins with a confession that's as matter-of-fact as its splendid title, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.

"I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts," declares our narrator, whose crime killed two people and earned him 10 years in prison. Once his sentence is served, Sam ostensibly readjusts: He attends college, marries, settles in suburbia, reproduces. "[F]or five years there was no story to tell and we were happy enough, as happy as anyone can expect to be," he recalls.

But then Sam's past starts to replay itself: He encounters Thomas Coleman, the son of the couple who died in the fire; he reconnects with his own deeply troubled parents; more writers' homes go up in flames. One by one, tangled chains of related events are tightening around him - stories that insist on being told.

Clarke's novel is, in part, a handbook on the dangers, cliches and compulsions of narrative. For one thing, even with a copycat flamethrower on the loose, Sam can't bring himself to inform his wife of his teenage crime, so he appropriates Thomas' tragic biography as his own. Meanwhile, Sam's former prison inmates borrow Sam's father's travel anecdotes, told in postcards from far-off places that aren't quite what they seem.

Through the lens of Sam's bemused investigation of the arsons and other mysteries, the author satirizes several corners of the publishing world, from Harry Potter fanatics and the narcissistic frequenters of book clubs to the glut of memoirs. ("I was grateful to the books for teaching me - without my even having to read them - that there were people in the world more desperate, more self-absorbed, more boring than I was," Sam muses.) These targets are easy, admittedly, but the author also pokes fun at himself: Sam puts down Clarke's 2001 novel, The Ordinary White Boy (like Arsonist's Guide, a thwarted amateur-detective yarn), almost as quickly as he picks it up.

An Arsonist's Guide expands on an earlier Clarke story, "She Loved to Cook but Not Like This" (from the 2002 collection What We Won't Do); at 300-plus pages, the new novel does bear a few stretch marks. At first glance, Sam is erratically drawn. He sometimes demonstrates a wicked sense of humor but more often appears dim, autistic or in a cloud of stupefaction. Perhaps the most apt reading of Sam, however, is as a blank slate: He's the sum of the narratives he's forgotten and can't forget, chief among them his mother's Grand Guignol tales about evil forces lurking within the Emily Dickinson house, which scorched her kid's psyche long before any fires were started.

Bittersweet and ultimately sorrowful, Clarke's book suggests that we're all subject to the whims of the stories we tell ourselves; they're as merciless as they are irresistible.

Jessica Winter writes for Time Out London, Slate.com and the Boston Globe. A version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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