Deep beneath the surface of Brock Clarke's new novel, "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England," there perhaps lies a community of reasonably normal Massachusetts residents living unexceptional lives.
Yet very little of what we might recognize as ordinary domestic behavior makes any sense to Clarke's clueless narrator, Sam Pulsifer, arsonist and self-confessed bumbler. In this novel of self-discovery, our guide to this world doesn't get it -- and neither do we. Clarke has written a book about what we don't know.
Released from prison after serving 10 years for torching the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst (an accident? maybe), Sam creates a new life for himself -- wife, two kids, house in the suburbs -- and denies his past, one which wells up on him with a vengeance.
Through all of this, we trail around with Sam, scratching our heads over the absurdities taking place. Why has his English teacher mother given up books and taken to spending her evenings with 40-ounce bottles of Knickerbocker beer? Why are copycat arsonists trying to burn down the homes of other New England icons? Why does Sam's father-in-law refer to him as "Coleslaw"?
The delight in this book comes from Sam's rueful humor, almost on every page. Through Sam, Clarke offers some wicked sendups: of book groups, of a certain popular literary series featuring wizards, of men who sit "with their legs so wide open that it seemed as though there must be something severely wrong with their testicles." Perhaps of the reader, too.
Thomas Zelman is a professor of English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.