Review of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

Sometimes, I have to think about a book for a while before deciding if I really liked it or not, and Brock Clarke’s novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (2007), is one of those situations.

It is a story about a 40ish man who spent 10 years in prison for burning down the Emily Dickinson house (it is still there in real life) and who has avoided the consequences in all his major relationships (wife, parents, victims, etc). Until now.

Basically, it is a satire of people who care deeply about the written word. English majors with a propensity to burn–both inside and out.

I usually find satire, much like heavy sarcasm, to be too disingenuous. But in this case, I enjoyed it, especially how it worked with the theme of one’s life can be stranger than fiction.

What is harder to accept is that the main character, Sam, is either passive or drunk in the most of the action of the story, and it is hard to stick with a character like that.

I can say the writing is great with lines that would make any writer (read: me) jealous. Such as:

This new mother of mine was less pretty but more beautiful than my old mother, which is to say, I guess, that prettiness is something to like and beauty is something to be scared of, and I was scared of it, and her.”

These sorts of observations, especially in the last half of the book, reminded me of another first-person narrative, Prep (2005) by Curtis Sittenfeld, the queen of the true life anecdote.

The bottom line is I will have to smolder on the novel some more, but the fire is probably worth the ash.

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