Brief book reviews - Radiant Deconstruction

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''An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England'' by Brock Clarke; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 303 pages; $24.

Sam Pulsifer is now one of the great naifs of American literature, a character reminiscent of Jack Isadore, the spaceball dork who narrates sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's uncharacteristically mainstream novel "Confessions of a Crap Artist."

In that unappreciated and largely unread book, Isadore eventually figures out, much to his astonishment, that the Earth is not hollow and aliens are not among us, even as the reader learns, much to his, that Dick could write decent prose when he bothered to take the time.



Sam, the narrator of Brock Clarke's rollicking, hilarious and subtly heartbreaking novel "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England," is working on a book to be called "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England."

He's something of an expert: As a teenager, he accidentally burned down the historic Emily Dickinson house in his hometown of Amherst; a young couple died in the fire. Sprung after serving 10 years, he ... well, this happens in a flash: Goes to college (where he majors in packaging science), gets married, has two kids and establishes his family in a house just a few miles from Amherst without ever contacting his parents.

The story, narrated by Sam, kicks in when the angry son of the couple who died in the Dickinson house shows up at his front door. He flees to his parents' house, where his father hauls out the letters that started arriving soon after Sam was arrested - letters from people who want Sam to burn down famous writers' houses in their towns.

Soon, suspicious fires begin being set, well, if you know your New England writers, you know where: the historic homes of Edward Bellamy, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Ralph Waldo Emerson ... Sam knows that he didn't set them, but a hapless and all but literally clueless detective doesn't. So who did?

As a private eye, Sam doesn't stand a chance - he's pretty much a guy who doesn't get it. Get anything at all, that is; even before spending a decade in the clink, he was generally at a loss to interpret what was going on around him. As a result, he sees things with fresh if all but purblind eyes.

Novelist Clarke, having created this opening, hurls himself into it and emerges with a passel of refrigerator - (or better) worthy Sam Observations: "I'd never punched anyone (before), and it was the most unsatisfying feeling in the world, and I knew immediately it is better to be wounded than to wound. Gandhi knew this, too, until someone wounded him to death, which goes to show you that there is always an exception to the rule, which makes you wonder why we have rules at all."

(In a bookstore) "There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-memoirs memoirs: 'A Memoirist's Guide to Writing Your Memoir' and the like. All of this made me feel better about myself, and I was grateful to the books for teaching me - without my even having to read them - that there were people in the world more desperate, more self-absorbed, and more boring than I was. Evidence is just a more concrete form of wishful thinking."

Clarke will wander off from his tale in a (and for a) New England minute to work in a Sam Observation, and the novel is shot through with oddball conceits like the gang of memoir-writing bond analysts Sam meets in prison, and the decision of his in-laws to suddenly start calling him "Coleslaw" (which really annoys Sam, which is understandable, and gets funnier every time they say it, which isn't).

But "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" is at the same time a wrenching examination of what happens when you pry up the floorboards, flake off the stucco, open up the books, and see what's really going on between husband and wife, parents and children, friends and lovers. Sam's parents' lives turn out to be nothing, but nothing, like he thought they were - and neither, it seems, is his.

"Once you get everything out in the open," he muses at one point, "why, oh why would you ever want that?"

So (Part I): Is torching the historic homes of famous New England writers a good idea after all? Probably not, though Sam's coming around will give you some pause. And surely some laughs.

So (Part II): What does happen when you pry up the floorboards, flake off the stucco, open up the books? Well, it's different every time, and figuring out, interpreting and explicating just how it's different is, in part, what art is all about. One time, years ago, I was in a car full of people riding through an absolutely unexceptional middle-class neighborhood when an older woman in the car said, "Behind every door, there's a horror."

At the time I didn't know (or hoped I didn't know) what she was talking about. Sam Pulsifer knows. And believe me, Brock Clarke knows, too.

- By Arthur Salm
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