Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes of New England, by Brock Clarke

The NY Times Review of Books referred to this novel as "cheerfully oddball", which is certainly apt. The author stresses in his preface that it is a work of fiction, adding that the Emily Dickinson house, which the story's narrator claims to have burnt to the ground is actually still standing, as are the other writers' homes that the story incinerates.  That the author thought this reminder necessary struck me as funny but true:  I can imagine skittish literary types clutching at their breasts in fear that their favourite author's home might be in peril or in ashes. 

And it's just this reader that Brock Clarke is playing to.  He's poking great fun at literature, but in a kindly way. He's not snide, nor malicious.  He is, however, laugh-out-loud funny.  This novel's humour reminded me of that in a couple of other books I've read recently: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon.  All three were loaded with wit but equally with poignancy. They were not lightweight comedies.  

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes of New England opens with its narrator, Sam Pulsifer, in prison, where he is serving time for setting fire to the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA.  Sam repeatedly maintains that the fire was accidental, something which occurred, as most of the events in his life, as a result of his chronic bumbling.  A group of his fellow inmates spends time hashing over the art of writing a good memoir, yet another thing Sam seems unfit to accomplish:
I also hung around this group of high-stepping bond analysts from Boston who were in the clink for insider trading. While they were inside, the bond analysts had set out to write their fond, freewheeling memoirs about their high crimes and misdemeanors and all the cashish ― that's the way they talked ― they had made while screwing old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress, so I paid extra attention during their memoir-brainstorming sessions, listened closely to their debates over how much the reading public did or did not need to know about their tortured childhoods in order to understand why they needed to make so much money in the manner in which they made it.
I took notes as they divided the world between those who had stuff taken from them and those who took, those who did bad things in a good way ― gracefully, effortlessly ― and those bumblers who bumbled their way through life. "Bumblers," I said. "Yes," they said, or one of them did. "Those who bumble." "Give me an example," I said, and they stared at me with those blue-steel stares they were born with and didn't need to learn at Choate or Andover, and they stared those stares until I realized that I was an example, and so this is what I learned from them: that I was a bumbler, I resigned myself to the fact and had no illusions about striving to be something else ― a bond analyst or a memoirist, for instance ― and just got on with it. Life, that is.

Sam finally leaves prison and bumbles back to his parents' house in Amherst, where he reviews the stack of letters that people had written him over the years, much of it understandably hostile.
There were at least a hundred letters. Some of them, as I mentioned, were from scholars of American literature, damning me to hell, et cetera. There is something underwhelming about scholarly hate mail ― the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions ― and so I didn't pay much attention to those letters at all.

Better yet, however, are the letters from people wishing Sam would burn down other literary holy sites.
A dairy farmer in Cooperstown, New York, wanted me to pour gasoline down the chimney of the James Fenimore Cooper House because the dairy farmer couldn't stand the thought of someone being from such a rich family when his family was so awfully poor. "I've had it harder than Cooper ever did," the man wrote. "That family's got money up to here and they charge ten dollars' admission to their home and people pay it. Won't you please burn that son-of-a-bitching house right to the ground for us? We'll pay, too; I'll sell some of our herd if I have to. I look forward to your response."

Sam, however, is a bumbler, not an arsonist. He really does just want to get on with his life, but life has its way with him. Sam is a man of few words actually, and he finds that things unsaid will wreak havoc with his life. Try as he might (and his efforts are prodigious), Sam cannot seem to shed his designation as the Man Who Burnt Down the Emily Dickinson House.

Is this really an arsonist's guide? No, it's more of a marriage and relationship manual. Sam never quite gets around to mentioning his past to his wife, and in the course of the book, he learns that there were a great many things that his parents never got around to telling him. All these unspoken facts are landmines, just waiting for a bumbling footstep.  When they start blowing up, Sam wonders to himself,

Why don't we listen to the people we love? Is it because we have only so much listening in us, and so many very important things to tell ourselves?

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