In spite of its intriguing title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England isn’t a book that I would have picked out for myself. And this is where having friends who trade books with you comes in handy. Experience has taught me to be wary of novels are supposed to be funny. A sense of humour is a difficult thing to peg, and added to that, there’s a large cultural component to humour. We all tend to laugh at different things, so what’s funny to me may not be funny to you. If I see the book (in a bookshop), then I can at least read the first few pages or a chapter and decide if the book is indeed funny, or if the humour drops flat. But if I am buying over the internet, I am left either reading reviews or perhaps sampling through a book site, such as Amazon. I am always on the lookout for new authors, but there’s something about a funny book written by an author who’s new to me that makes me pause. Perhaps it’s because I’ve wasted precious reading time on first novel horrors that were decidedly unfunny. Anyway all this explains my initial reluctance to read An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, and it probably also explains why it took me a while to warm up to this novel. I just didn’t get the humourous tone at first, but after 50 pages or so, I got the author’s style and settled back to enjoy this very funny book.
Here’s the plot:
As a teenager, Sam Pulsifer accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts. Unknown to Sam, two people were upstairs despoiling Emily’s bed, and as the fire raged through the house, they were killed. Sam was caught, tried, sentenced and imprisoned. After serving his sentence, he’s released, and he returns briefly to his home. But the locals aren’t happy with Sam’s presence back in town:
“There was some picketing by the local arts council and some unwelcome, unflattering news coverage, and neighbourhood kids who cared nothing about Emily Dickinson or her house started egging the place and draping our noble birches with toilet paper, and for a while there it was like Halloween every day.”
When the opposition to Sam’s return heats up, Sam’s English teacher mother, and his editor father encourage him (practically beg) him to move out and go to college. Sam agrees. He moves out, attends university, and steering clear of English, he majors in packing science. He marries, has two children and moves to a boring prissy middle class suburb called Camelot. It seems that his life is set, but then a man turns up on Sam’s doorstep, determined to wreak revenge. Sam’s life rapidly begins to fall apart when someone starts torching other homes which belonged to famous American writers. Edward Bellamy’s house is the first victim, and it spreads from this point. Now since Sam is a bona fide, documented arsonist, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Sam finds himself the number one suspect. But since Sam is deeply invested in keeping himself out of jail, he decides to track down the real arsonist. This hunt takes him back and forth through the frozen New England landscape–and along the way Sam meets a series of eccentric characters, including a herd of bond analysts who met Sam in jail, a hostile professor of American literature who doesn’t “believe” in literature, and a vengeful handyman.
Now none of this may sound funny, and that’s where the book’s absurdist, warped humour comes in. Sam’s narrative voice smacks of naiveté–a babe in the woods, someone unworldly who just doesn’t get the darker side of human existence. Sam remains fairly clueless throughout the book, and we see the world through his eyes–askew, off-kilter and more than a bit warped. Sam is clueless about his parents, his wife, his past and worse than all that…he’s clueless about who is setting all the fires he’s being blamed for. The Coen brothers need to read this book and make it into a film; it’s the sort of material that’s right up their alley.
One of the funniest parts of this very funny book concerns the many letters sent to Sam while he was in jail. Some of the letters are from those who’d like to string Sam up for torching the Emily Dickinson house, while others are angry about the houses Sam didn’t burn down. There are literally 100s of other letters from people who are willing to pay Sam to burn down the homes of writers they dislike for one reason or another:
“They were from all over New England and beyond: from Portland, Bristol, Boston, Burlington, Derry, Chicopee, Hartford, Providence, Pittsfield–from towns and cities in New York and Pennsylvania too. They were from people who lived near the homes of writers and who wanted me to burn those houses down. A man in New London, Connecticut, wanted me to burn down Eugene O’Neill’s house because of what an awful drunk O’Neill was and what a bad example he set for the schoolchildren visiting his home….A woman in Lenox, Massachusetts, wanted me to torch Edith Wharton’s house because visitors to Wharton’s house parked in front of the woman’s mailbox and because Wharton was always, in her opinion, something of a whiner and a phony.”
With Sam hot on the trail of the real arsonist, he picks up handy-dandy tips for how to set fires, and he begins to compile an arsonists’ guide. At the same time, he also begins to get a clue about his life and all the things he never ever understood. In a way, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England is a detective story, and that leaves Sam floundering in the detective role in a New England sea of weirdos. Part of the novel takes Sam through New Hampshire, and at first he’s entranced. His initial reaction to New Hampshire captures his innocence and unique world vision:
“I drove by an inn in Red Bell, and there were a half-dozen cars parked out front, all of them with out-of-state plates, people obviously on vacation. I’d never been on vacation myself, not really, and now I knew why people did it. People went on vacation not to get a break from their home but to imagine getting a new home, a better home, in which they’d live a better life. I knew this because as I drove, the hole that was me and my life was getting smaller and smaller and being filled up with New Hampshire, or maybe it was only the idea of New Hampshire, but who cares, as long as it was filling up the hole. So maybe that’s what a vacation was for; to fill up the hole that was you not on vacation.”
Sam’s delight with New Hampshire soon turns to horror when he ends up at a trailer park in the middle of a snow drift where he’s faced with a man armed with a toilet plunger and a large grudge against the Robert Frost house.
I enjoyed An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England far more than I expected. I really loved the idea of much-loathed writers bringing out the secret arsonist in every readers’ heart. I mean, who hasn’t wondered at the sanity of preserving and worshipping certain writers–writers whose works we are so saturated with in school and university that by the time we reach adulthood, their hallowed names send shivers down our spines (in my case it’s Walt Whitman, and never ask me to watch another version of friggin’ Hamlet who I see as a useless whiner who does nothing but cause pandemonium). Well that’s what education does to you.