An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke has all the makings of a classic Coen Brothers screenplay: “the drama of a Greek tragedy, flashes of howling humor, over the top Uber-violence, quirkiness with a capital ‘Q’ and a depressing point of view about the society in which we all live.” (quoted from a critic’s review of a Coen Brothers’ movie)
Sam Pulsifer is a self-professed “bumbler” who accidently sets fire to Amherst’s beloved Emily Dickinson House, tragically killing a tour guide and her husband during an after-hours rendezvous. He serves ten years in prison for the crime, is released, becomes a successful packaging scientist, falls in love and marries, has two kids, and lives to forget (and lie about) his past. The past doesn’t forget about him, though, and the book is set into motion when the son of the deceased fire victims comes to pay Sam a visit.
With as sad and tragic as many of the events are in this book, I was surprised to find myself laughing so often. It’s as if the rules had changed for appropriate reaction – that’s the kind of world Clarke has created here. I suppose it’s the “quirky with a capital ‘Q'” factor. There is a smattering of “Uber-violence,” too, as the body count increases in a shocking (though not grisly or graphic) manner. The Greek drama element is fed by a band of ex-con bond analysts from Sam’s days in the pen – they make up their own kind of Chorus. And this book has plenty of depressing observations about love and relationships, responsibility, and I think even personal integrity.
So why did I like it so much? It’s inventive and clever. After the Emily Dickinson House fire, Sam receives letters from people all over New England, asking him to burn down other famous authors’ homes. These people have their own reasons, and we’re lucky enough to hear a few of them. When some of those houses do start going up in flames, and Sam is obviously blamed, he sets out as – what else? – a “bumbling” detective to find the true arsonist. His investigation is peppered with many odd interviews and interactions with potential suspects and witnesses – those certainly make for very funny scenes.
But there’s more; this book has so much to grab on to! This book is a fabulous satire on academia, the influence of literature, and even life in American Suburbia. It’s also a sad commentary on loss of communication with those we love, and how badly we can hurt them with our ignorance.
There were some elements of this book that irked me. I was bothered by Sam’s wife’s behavior after his past was revealed (especially because there were children involved). I was sometimes irritated by Sam’s pathetic nature. The “we can only bond as drunks” relationship between Sam, his father, and mother was sad. And there were a few scenes with pervasive language (in fact, just two isolated scenes that I can think of). Other splices of the book here and there bruised my overall opinion of the book, but nothing could convince me not to like it as a whole.
I just hope that if the Coen Brothers DO make a movie out of this, it has the same kind of killer soundtrack as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”.
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