Brock Clarke: 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, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter.

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Why I read it

You know how it happens: you’re browsing in a bookshop because it’s an activity that provides solace and escapism from the real world of pain and worry, and you see a title that rings a bell: a literary friend has recommended it, a while back. So you pull it off the shelf and the front cover pronounces it ‘WILDLY, UNPREDICTABLY FUNNY… as cheerfully oddball as its title. New York Times‘. So you take it to the checkout, feeling glad you’ve found something light but nourishing; a kind of novel equivalent of an ABC weekend murder mystery, and you ready yourself for a pleasant evening in the reading chair.

Why it’s not necessarily the book for a pleasant evening in the reading chair

I got less than five pages into the book before I put it down, feeling way too black and bleak to be able to handle it at that time, and it took about two years before I gave it a second go.

Here’s the thing: it’s not ‘wildly and unpredictably funny’. It’s smart and self-aware and full of self-deprecating humour, it’s true. It’s a gripping story, too, and well-told and enjoyable. But it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. The dry humour doesn’t so much make you want to laugh as cry.

An example? Our protagonist Sam has just gotten out of jail for accidentally setting a prized local heritage building on fire, which killed two people. He reunites with his parents to discover they’ve become drunks – they’re using alcohol to dull the pain of disappointment in their son, as well as the way their neighbours look at them now. But the moment Sam moves back home, the family house immediately becomes the target of graffiti and broken windows from other residents of the left-wing, highly-educated suburb who haven’t forgiven or forgotten. Through tears, the broken parents suggest to their broken, directionless son that he should probably move out and go somewhere, anywhere.

Laughing yet? Oh – I forgot to mention: the shoe thrown through the window of the parents’ window was a Birkenstock, ‘a man’s right shoe, size twelve’, that cliched footwear of the intellectual class. Ha! Ha! Ha! See – it’s funny because it’s not just the thugs who hate him, it’s the very people who should be showing empathy for his complex situation, thus making him feel even more abandoned! Wheeeeeee.

Anyway, you get the gist.

This turned out to be the most heartbreaking book I’ve read for a long time.

Why it’s good

This book is very good at describing disconnection and loneliness within modern urban communities. It’s peopled by colourful characters and larger-than-life events, but despite all the interactions you feel no-one has really managed to connect with each other. There’s the relationship between Sam and his parents, where there seems to be a silence as deep as midnight between every fractured sentence they share:

“Maybe you could go to college, Sam,” my father said after he’d gotten ahold of himself.

“That’s a good idea,” my mother said. “We’d be happy to pay for it.”

“OK,” I said, because I was looking at them closely, really scrutinizing them for the first time since I’d been home from prison, and I could see what I’d done to them. […]

“OK,” I said again. “I’ll go to college.” And then: “I love you both.”

“Oh, us too,” my father said, and then started weeping again.

“We certainly do,” my mother said. And then to my father: “Bradley, quit crying.”

There’s Sam’s failed relationship with his wife, which involves a lot of quiet crying as well. There’s the disfunctional marriage of his parents, which contains dark secrets Sam is about to discover. There’s the relationships between people in his cookie-cutter suburban development, where neighbours continue to mow their lawns and say hello with a smile even when they can hear unhappy sounds coming from inside. There’s the exuberant bunch of lawyers in prison, gleefully swapping and stealing stories of exploits for their memoirs without any sense of remorse. There are the academic couple who only remain friends until it is more lucrative to do otherwise. And there is the police officer carrying out the investigation, who lets his anger overshadow his judgement of who is right and wrong.

Above all else there is poor Sam’s relationship with the world: one in which he bumbles through the world as best he can, and the world delivers him blow after blow in return. Now that he has taken the initiative to try and solve a mystery – who is trying to frame him by burning down other writers’ homes? – will he regain some control over his life? Will he solve the mystery? Will he become happy? Will he save his marriage? Will he succeed in his new career?

Are these things the just rewards of someone who is toiling in the face of bleakness? Or is failure and loneliness all that any of us can ever expect in this world?

I don’t know.

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This book was read under pleasant conditions with a cat

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