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Brock Clarke's burning ambition

What to do about those who write better than you?

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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
By Brock Clarke
Algonquin Books, 303 pp.

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Do you think American literary classics like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward are in fact "more than a little boring"? Trying to choose between two doors or paths, have you stopped to complain that Frost's "The Road Not Taken" only helps "if you knew which one was less traveled in the first place"?

If so, you might find a kindred spirit in Sam Pulsifer, the narrator—or, as he calls himself, the "bumbler"—of Brock Clarke's second novel, the satire An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.

And a bumbler he is. As a teenager, he accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Mass., killing a married couple canoodling on one of the beds inside. After a prison term, he remade himself into a flimsy suburban dad, girded by his capable wife, whom he has never told of his arsonist past. He has two kids, a ho-hum job, parents he never visits and a fondness for ex tempore aphorisms.

Years later, though, the son of the incinerated couple shows up, other famous authors' houses in New England are getting mysteriously torched, and the excitement in Sam's life is, well, rekindled. But once a bumbling arsonist, always a bumbling arsonist, and soon Sam starts spilling gasoline on his life and others'. Lies, it turns out, are inflammable.

An Arsonist's Guide, with its bookish accoutrements and its focus on the muddled relationship between Sam and his literary but dissolute parents, promises an apt metaphor about the anxiety of influence: Both children and writers simultaneously love and hate their parents, familial and literary. They made us who we are (much like them, naturally) but we strive to individuate, to blaze new paths. It's tempting to take a match to the old homestead, the old masters.

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Although this metaphor lurks in An Arsonist's Guide, it isn't central, largely because Sam hasn't gotten much from the books he's read, although he claims to have read a lot of them. (He also likes to pile on where literary insult has already been dealt, taking redundant potshots at, among others, Harry Potter, memoirists, Ethan Frome and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley.) Opportunities to learn and then act honorably abound for Sam, but he usually wastes them, sometimes disastrously. Even the few heroic acts he commits tend to be vitiated by dishonesty or inebriation or accident. Clarke has created a protagonist a bit like the David Sedaris persona: Sam exploits his feckless but witty egomania for both comic dividends and quasi-philosophical one-liners.

These one-liners come often. The blurb on the back of An Arsonist's Guide promises that the book "will have readers underlining their favorite passages," but they're virtually underlined for you. They come about every couple of pages, often preceded by a colon that heralds a pithy observation, such as:

[...] and maybe this is also what it means to be a child: always needing your parents and hating them for it, but still needing them, and maybe needing to hate them too.

Some of Sam's observations are probably true, or at least truisms; some are absurd misperceptions (authors die so readers won't "misconstrue what kind of writer they are"?); others devolve into an involute chatter of questions. Sam's habitual detours to aphorism grow tiring after a while. Certainly we're not expected to take this bumbler's wisdom seriously, but how are we supposed to take it?

Brock Clarke has been compared to John Cheever, and there are obvious similarities, but the main difference between them is vast. Even at their sorriest, Cheever's bedeviled men are striving to transcend their straitened circumstances, their bland despair, their effete selves. They glimpse and give glimpses of "the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life." Their world is ultimately moral. Sam Pulsifer doesn't aim to (and never could) be great, he merely wants escape from his own accidental and naïve infamy. As his parents' child, he's a complacent failure; as his author's, a contented epigone. Perhaps he should burn down Brock Clarke's house.

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