by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England & r & by Brock Clarke & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he unwieldy title of Brock Clarke's novel is a clue to its success: The author loves to play with words. He has a knack for writing sentences that rattle through paragraphs, stretching and contracting with rhythms and forms that become as playful as the story itself. An Arsonist's Guide is a novel masquerading as a memoir -- a hybrid genre that the narrator, Sam Pulsifer, mocks. "The fiction shelf," he says, "wasn't all that different from the memoir shelf." And so Sam Pulsifer lies and lies and lies, making him one of the least-trustworthy narrators since Nabokov's.
Pulsifer is a "bumbler" whose bumbles are so great that he "accidentally burned down" the Emily Dickinson house when he was a child, and possibly burns down a few more during the novel. Despite his literary achievements, however, Pulsifer is a suburban drone who spends enough time in the strip malls and subdivisions of his city that he "can live in a place without having to actually have a life there." He lies to his dreary wife and deludes himself about his parents' mediocrity.
Sustaining Pulsifer's illusions are the great works of literature, which infuse An Arsonist's Guide like weakly brewed tea. Emily D. is present in shafts of light, just as Robert Frost (another targeted former homeowner) is recollected in New England's stone walls. But these details are stripped of their artistic allusiveness even as they are conjured forth. "Noble birches" get draped in the same sentence "with toilet paper."
Clarke's main comedic technique is to start a metaphor, extend it to absurdity, then bring it back round to the banal reality that inspired it, making the narrator seem outlandishly erudite. This would be tiresome if it didn't lead to a grand mockery of the way that lovers of literature tend to overburden the literature they love most. Forced by his mother to become a close reader at a young age, Pulsifer applies her method to life with disastrous results. Near the end, he's forced to conclude that "Maybe love, and marriage, and life, and maybe anything that matters, would work out better if we weren't so certain about them." Spoken like a true