Publisher's Weekly lacks insight
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel
BrianB @ 2008-09-07
This is an often amusing, but equally troubling novel by a creative writing teacher at U. Cincinnatti. Publisher's Weekly enthused about it without reservations, which is a warning of sorts. Clarke writes well. He fleshes out Sam Pulsifer, his main character, with real personality and flaws. The numerous literary references are funny and fitting. His narrative kept my interest enough that I finished the book in two days.
I did not like any of the main characters. At their core, each of these people (except Sam's mother) are self absorbed and false. The author relegates emotions to a secondary role, not absent, but more as a comic element than a central life experience. They treat each other with cruelty, but the reader is kept at a distance from the sorrow.
There are some amusements within. The author gently mocks the tortured windbags who populate the humanities departments of western Massachusetts colleges, and the mostly literate but occasionally violent citizens of those parts. As the easily identified arsonist of Emily Dickinson's home, our protagonist suffers not slings and arrows, but a Birkenstock hurled through his parent's window. He receives and reviews scholarly hate mail, which is marked by "the sad literary allusions, and a refusal to use contractions." He sits through a literature class led by a misanthropic, penurious professor who thinks that all authors are c***s. She uses that word so often that her students and colleagues snooze right through it. The author describes these people very well. I suffered flashbacks to my own college days.
I did not like this novel. Clarke has good writing mechanics, and he is clever, but that was not enough. Although Sam is admittedly a liar and a coward, his final choices do not make sense. He makes a supposedly courageous choice by continuing to lie to those he loves. The contradictions were not meaningful. If this is a great story, or even literature, then I am unable to appreciate its greatness.
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