three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
Brock Clarke
user_rating: 
0

A-An Arsonists GuideAt 18, prodigiously unlucky Sam Pulsifer accidentally sets fire to Emily Dickinson’s house. The resulting conflagration not only destroys the literary landmark but also kills the two people engaged in some after-hours fun in the bedroom upstairs. After serving 10 years in prison for his mistake, Sam disavows his past and his parents, moves away, and starts a family with a woman whom he never tells about his dark history. However, the son of the couple whose death Sam caused eventually appears, seeking retribution. When historic authors’ homes around New England mysteriously start going up in flames, Sam decides to play detective to clear his name.
Algonquin Books. 305 pages. $23.95. ISBN:1565125517

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Like all great novels, it poses exceedingly difficult questions about how we—real people—manage our existences. … A novel that entertains and indicts in equal part is decidedly rare; one that manages to do so on literary grounds while its protagonist is consistently hammered is even rarer, and its own sort of joy." Anne Julia Wyman

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s nearly impossible not to care about and laugh with Sam. … He appeals to the fool in everyone and comforts us in knowing that we’re not alone." Porter Shreve

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Clarke’s novel is, in part, a handbook on the dangers, clichés and compulsions of narrative. … 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

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England is as cheerfully oddball as its title. … Although it is [Clarke’s] fourth book, it feels like the bright debut of an ingeniously arch humorist, one whose hallmark is a calm approach to insanely improbable behavior." Janet Maslin

Dallas Morning News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]here’s a little too much postmodern knowingness about An Arsonist’s Guide, a little too much wit without quite enough heart. The premise is intriguing, but the outlandishness of the way it’s worked out, and the absence of any character other than Sam with enough substance to latch on to, allows Mr. Clarke’s novel to meander too often and too far away from cleverness into tedium." Charles Matthews

Christian Science Monitor 2 of 5 Stars
"Even if I were able to believe that Sam had only the fuzziest memory of incinerating human beings, I don’t really care to spend time with somebody who could forget a little detail like that. Clarke is a very smart writer, but few of Sam’s actions make any rational sense, except that they send him drifting helplessly toward tragedy." Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

The Chicago Tribune calls An Arsonist’s Guide "a Matryoshka doll of a book … a novel, nested within a memoir, nested within a how-to-guide." Accidental arsonist Sam’s misadventures allow for a lot of literary in-jokes and parodies, but they also accommodate serious musings about the powerful role stories and storytelling play in our lives. The Dallas Morning News opines that Brock Clarke’s attempt to pull off "whimsy, satire and black comedy" all in the same novel results in a muddle, and other critics decry it as overplotted. However, most reviewers are enchanted with this seductive, whimsical novel that, at its core, asks how we remain true to the stories we tell—and ourselves.