Tonight we’re co-hosting a reading at Wordsmiths Books for An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. The evening is free and includes DJ Hacks spinning tunes before the reading and the Sealions performing live music afterwards. Free food and beverage will be served throughout. It should be a fine evening of “capital C” Culture. We’ve mentioned the event several times here over the last few weeks, but we haven’t talked about the book itself in any real detail yet.
I enjoyed the novel thoroughly, which is one of the reasons that I’m excited that we were given the opportunity to co-host this evening.
The novel begins:
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 10 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.
That quote sets the tone for this book. It’s dark – our narrator has been found guilty of arson/murder – and yet he somehow remains likable through the telling of his story. It’s also archly comic. The role that story telling can play in our lives is an important theme in the novel.
We learn that Sam’s mother began to tell him horror stories that featured the Emily Dickinson House, a vaguely sinister local landmark in Amherst, after his father left the family for a time. “Those must have been some stories,” says the judge at Sam’s trial. Expanding on his line of questioning, the judge says:
Can a story be good only if it produces an effect? If the effect is a bad one, but intended, has the story done its job? Is it then a good story? If the story produces an effect other than the one intended one, is then a bad story? Can a story be said to produce an effect at all? Should we expect it to? Can we blame the story for anything? Can a story actually do anything at all?
After his release from prison, Sam tries to create a new life. In order to not be judged by his past, Sam tries to hide the truth and builds his new life on a foundation of lies. Big lies. Sam on being a liar:
I told another lie. Because this is what you do when you’re a liar: you tell a lie, and then another one, and after a while you hope that the lies end up being less painful than the truth, or at least that is the lie that you tell yourself.
Soon, reality begins to intrude on Sam’s life. Someone begins to burn down other writers’ homes in New England, and naturally Sam is a prime suspect. As the lies begin to unravel, marital problems add to Sam’s woes. I don’t know why, but I loved this line:
Fear and love might leave a man complacent, but jealousy will always get him out of the van.
Along the way, almost all aspects of literary life are commented upon by Sam, who is not a reader. Authors’ homes museum are one obvious target of Sam’s commentary. Book readings (!), book clubs, corporate book stores, and British kids’ books all come under fire along the way. Most disturbing of all, however, is Sam’s offhand attack on reader’s themselves:
…this was another reason why people read: not so that they would feel less lonely, but so that other people would think that they looked less lonely with a book in their hands and therefore not pity them and leave them alone.
Oh, Sam, that hurts. Sam also has a rather inspired bit on memoirs vs. fiction that I can’t tell you about, because it could ruin your reading of the novel.
As I said earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s smart, it’s funny, and this Brock Clarke guy can write. Early on in my reading of the novel, I replaced my bookmark with a index card so I could keep track of especially inspired lines and passages. I never do that. File this one in the “recommended” column.
If you’re in the Atlanta area, you can pick up the novel tonight, meet the author, and hang out with all of the cool kids. Throw some free eats, drinks, And music into the bargain, and you’ve got yourself a can’t lose proposition. See you there.
Besides Wordmsiths, the other co-sponsor of the evening’s festivities is The Wren’s Nest, an author’s home museum. That’s inspired genius right there. If you make it out tonight, be sure to say hello.
Additional info on the reading is here.