An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke starts with a convicted criminal, Sam Pulsifer, who admits to burning down Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Not only is he an arsonist, but he’s also a murderer and a liar.  He spends about 10 years in prison for his crime, but when he’s released, he goes to college, meets his sweetheart, and has some kids before everything goes horribly wrong.

“Even now, with Thomas in front of me, the fire and the smoke and his parents’ burning bodies were so far away they seemed like someone else’s problem, which is awfully mean to say and in that way perfectly consistent with most true things.” (Page 27)

There are hopes, dreams, and failures in these pages, and with the first person narration, readers will be left guessing if its all a surreal dream/nightmare or a fantasy world created by an unreliable narrator for much of the book.  With dark humor Clarke pokes fun at the white towers of academia and its unstable residents, while at the same time leading readers on a journey in which a son learns the truth about his parents and himself.  But there are whimsical moment too, in which readers familiar with New England residents and culture will see it clear as day in the northern parts of New Hampshire and the suburban sprawl of Massachusetts.

There are secrets in these pages, and much of it reads like the rambling of a lonely man or even a mad man.  Too much of it is dreamlike, with the reader left swimming in the ooze of self-doubt, judgment, and confusion that is Sam.  There are burning literary icons’ houses in the novel, but whether its actually a guide to anything other than constant meandering and second guessing is hard to tell.  Through a stream-of-consciousness prose, Clarke allows Sam to tell his heartbreaking story of how he became an arsonist, is subsequently set up for setting more fires, and how his ideas about what his family was are shattered.  While he blames most everyone or his own “bumbling,” which he claims cannot be controlled or modified, it is clear that Sam fails to have enough conviction or determination to make real changes.

“Was I angry? Of course I was.  Is this what memorists did? Steal someone else’s true story and pass it off as their own?” (Page 89)

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke is hardly boring, but oftentimes, the reader is left too in the dark about the motivations of the character or what the point of the story is.  Readers will struggle with whether they should keep reading to find out what happens or whether to give up because they just don’t find Sam to be sympathetic.  Although the dark humor and literary jabs are entertaining, they can get old after a while.  Reading this as part of an informal read-a-long with Literate Housewife and Indie Reader Houston helped motivate me to finish the book, which was mildly entertaining at best.  In a way, it was like the author was trying too hard to be surreal and darkly humorous about literary figures, which took away from a story that could have been much deeper and dramatic.

There is a fantastic Q&A in the back of the book between the author and his main character, Sam, which would help book clubs navigate this puzzling predicament of a novel.

Other Reviews:
We Be Reading
Bloody Hell! It’s a Book Barrage
Shelf Monkey
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’
Literate Housewife

photo credit: Jon Hughes / Photopresse

About the Author:

Brock Clarke is the author of five books, most recently Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller and has appeared in a dozen foreign editions.

His stories and essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, The Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.



This is my 17th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.


  1. Serena, you have said it well here. I did find some sparks of humor that made me glad to have read it. Still, they were few and far between and I felt I was pushing a boulder up hill to finish it. I’m glad you joined along. I think Cassandra is the only other person who finished. We’re nothing if not “finishers.” LOL!

  2. If you weren’t sure whether or not to continue reading, I certainly won’t even be starting it. Sounds like it could have been executed much better.

  3. Dawn - She Is Too Fond of Books says

    I don’t remember the marketing for this one, either (off to google …). It has been on my wish list (and I almost bought it when Algonquin had their ebook sale last month), but I haven’t yet picked it up.

    Oh, I’m on the fence, Serena. How can I *not* read a book set in New England!?

    • Dawn, the setting kept me reading along with the writing, though not the stream of consciousness blather. I really wanted this to be executed better. If you do read it, I look forward to your thoughts.

  4. Everything you said. I couldn’t motivate myself to finish, although I’d like to, but I found the book too nebulous (aggravatingly so) to really dig the story or get settled it.

  5. I’ve started the book and been carrying it around with me, unread, for about a month now. I’m taking your post as a sign to not worry about finishing it. As I was reading, it reminded me of Straight Man by Richard Russo, which I also recently read. Only Russo does the first person narration, stream of consiousnees, dark humor much better.

    • I haven’t heard of Russo before, but I think for now I’m shying away from stream of consciousness…at least for a little bit.

  6. James Eisenstein says

    I’m disappointed to hear that this wasn’t up to par. I’d been wanting to read this book for some time.
    Are the indie awards being announced today?

    • James, The awards are expected to be announced on March 19, tomorrow, but I have not heard definitively if this is the case. I’ve asked the founder and will be sure to announce them when that occurs.

  7. I’ve been interested in this book ever since it’s ill advised marketing scheme years ago. I generally don’t care for stream of consciousness prose, so it might not be the book for me.

    • I have no idea what the marketing scheme was…I don’t remember it. LOL This was tough with all the rambling…some of it relevant and some of it not. But I wonder how much my preconceived ideas about the book colored my enjoyment.

  8. I haven’t read this book, but I have known about it for awhile. I have to say, it doesn’t sound like what I expected. Humor is so subjective and what it funny to one person isn’t to another.

    • I agree that humor is subjective…but this is humor that will likely go over many heads unless they are familiar with the writers and the nuances of New England life and academia…if that makes sense.

  9. I read this for a book club and only one person liked it. However, the one person who liked it was able to point out the humor and the themes in the story that the rest of us missed. I found the ramblings to be so boring that the only way I could finish the book was by skipping the ramblings (which could go on for pages) and getting to the parts where something actually happens.

    On the other hand, I *did* love that the acronym is AAGTWHINE. That amused me to no end.

    • I saw the “humor” and the themes, but I guess I was too annoyed that the author tried so hard to make it denser than it needed to me. I do like the acronym though. I think that’s entertaining for sure. I’m glad that I finished this, though…It’s been on my shelf for some time.

  10. This sounds really different and dare I say it? Fun? Except, it sounds like it wasn’t executed all that well. I hate not knowing if you should continue with a book or not. Sounds like in this case, had it not been for those other bloggers you may have ditched it. Too bad it didn’t work out better for you.

    • I thought it was something that it clearly was not. I really wanted more out of the book than I got. I’m not sure if I would have ditched it or not, but I kept reading…the writing wasn’t horrible, I just really wanted something else from it than I was given.


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