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Clarke's fourth book (after the story collection Carrying the Torch) is the delightfully dark story of Sam Pulsifer, the "accidental arsonist and murderer" narrator who leads readers through a multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life. Growing up in Amherst, Mass., with an editor for a father and an English teacher for a mother, Sam was fed endless stories that fueled (literally and figuratively) the rest of his life. Thus, the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, story and reality become the landscape for amusing and provocative adventures that begin when, at age 18, Sam accidentally torches the Emily Dickinson Homestead, killing two people. After serving 10 years, Sam tries to distance himself from his past through college, employment, marriage and fatherhood, but he eventually winds up back in his parents' home, separated from his wife and jobless. When more literary landmarks go up in flames, Sam is the likely suspect, and his determination to find the actual arsonist uncovers family secrets and more than a bit about human nature. Sam is equal parts fall guy and tour guide in this bighearted and wily jolt to the American literary legacy. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
When Sam Pulsifer's parents separated for three years during his childhood, his mother lied about his father's whereabouts and also told Sam ghost stories about the Emily Dickinson House in his hometown of Amherst, MA. At age 18, he broke into the house one night to verify these stories, got spooked by a noise, dropped a lit cigarette, burned down the house, and unwittingly killed its two occupants. After ten years in a minimum security prison, Sam moved to the nearby suburbs to live an anonymous life, attend college, marry, and raise children. All is well until the son of the couple who died in the fire shows up on his doorstep, and fires begin breaking out at the homes of other New England writers. While trying to unravel the mystery of the fires, Sam uncovers the deceptions that have molded his life. Clarke (Ordinary White Boy) has created a character feebly struggling against fate in a situation both sad and funny, believable and preposterous. It's a setting so bizarre that the clear moral lesson smacks of sarcasm. In the end, however, this quirky story is entertaining and readable. Recommended.
—Joanna M. Burkhardt
So anyway, I served my time, and since the sentencing judge took mercy on me, I served my time at the minimum-security prison up at Holyoke. At Holyoke there were bond analysts and lawyers and day traders and city managers and school administrators, all of them caught with their hands in the till and nothing at all like me, an eighteen-year-old accidental arsonist and murderer with blood and soot on his hands and a heavy heart and plenty to learn and no high school diploma. I flung in and tried. I took a biweekly self-improvement seminar called the College of Me, in which I learned the life-changing virtues of patience, hard work, and positive attitude, and in which I earned my GED. I also hung around this group of high-stepping bond analysts from Boston who were in the clink for insider trading. While they were inside, the bond analysts had set out to write their fond, freewheeling memoirs about their high crimes and misdemeanors and all the cashish-that's the way they talked-they had made while screwing old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress, so I paid extra attention during their memoir-brainstorming sessions, listened closely to their debates over how much the reading public did or did not need to know about their tortured childhoods in order to understand why they needed to make so much money in the manner in which they made it. I took notes as they divided the world between those who had stuff taken from them and those who took, those who did bad things in a good way-gracefully, effortlessly-and those bumblers who bumbled their way through life.
"Bumblers," I said.
"Yes," they said, or one of them did. "Those who bumble."
"Give me an example," I said, and they stared at me with those blue-steel stares they were born with and didn't need to learn at Choate or Andover, and they stared those stares until I realized that I was an example, and so this is what I learned from them: that I was a bumbler, I resigned myself to the fact and had no illusions about striving to be something else-a bond analyst or a memoirist, for instance-and just got on with it. Life, that is.
I learned something from everyone, is the point, even while I was fending off the requisite cell-block buggerer, a gentle but crooked corporate accountant at Arthur Andersen who was just finding his true sexual self and who told me in a cracked, aching voice that he wanted me-wanted me, that is, until I told him I was a virgin, which I was, and which, for some reason, made him not want me anymore, which meant that people did not want to sleep with twenty-eight-year-old male virgins, which I thought was useful to know.
Finally, I learned to play basketball from this black guy named Terrell, which was one of the big joys of my life in prison and which ended badly. Terrell, who had written checks to himself when he was the Worcester city treasurer, was in prison for the last three of my ten years, and whenever he would beat me in one-on-one (this wasn't often, even when I was first learning to play, because although he was very strong, Terrell was also shorter than I was and about as sleek as a fire hydrant; plus, he was twice my age and his knees were completely shot and would crack like dry wood when he ran)-whenever he would beat me, Terrell would yell out, "I'm a grown-ass man." That sounded good, and so after our last game, which I won easily, I also yelled out, "I'm a grown-ass man." Terrell thought I was mocking him, so he started hitting me around the head, and since I get passive in the face of true anger, I just stood there and took Terrell's abuse and didn't try to defend myself. As the guards dragged him to solitary, he promised that he would beat on me a little more once he got out, which he shouldn't have, because, of course, the guards then gave him more solitary than they might have otherwise. By the time Terrell got out, I'd already been released from prison and was home, living with my parents.
That didn't work out too well, living with my parents. For one, my burning down the Emily Dickinson House caused them some real heartbreak, because my mother was a high school English teacher, my father an editor for the university press in town, and beautiful words really mattered to them; they didn't care anything for movies or TV, but you could always count on a good poem to make them cry or sigh meaningfully. For another, their neighbors in Amherst weren't exactly happy that I'd burned down the town's most famous house and killed two of its citizens in the bargain, so they took it out on my parents. People never had trouble finding our old, creaking house on Chicopee Street: it was always the one with the driveway that had been spray-painted murderer! (which I understand) or fascist! (which I don't), or with some quote from Dickinson herself that seemed to promise vengeance, but you could never tell exactly what the vengeance might be, because there were a lot of words and the spray-painter always got sloppy and illegible from fatigue or maybe overemotion. It only got worse when I went home after prison. There was some picketing by the local arts council and some unwelcome, unflattering news coverage, and neighborhood 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. Then things really got serious and someone slashed every tire on my parents' Volvo, and once, in a fit of anger or grief, someone hurled a Birkenstock through one of our bay windows. It was a man's right shoe, size twelve.
All of this happened within the first month of my return home. At the end of the month, my parents suggested I move out. I remember it was August, because the three of us were sitting on our front porch and the neighbors' flags were out, caught between the Fourth of July and Labor Day and in full flutter, and the light was spectral through the maple and birch leaves and it was all very pretty. You can imagine how much my parents' request that I leave home wounded me, even though the College of Me said that life after prison wouldn't be easy and that I shouldn't fool myself into thinking otherwise.
"But where should I go?" I asked them.
"You could go anywhere," my mother said. Back then I thought she was the harder parent of the two and had had high hopes for me, so the disappointment weighed on her more heavily. I remember that my mother was a dry well at my trial when the jury brought back the verdict, although my father had wept loudly and wetly, and he was starting to cry now, too. I hated to see them like this: one cold, the other weepy. There was a time when I was six and they taught me to skate on a pond at the Amherst public golf course. The ice was so thick and clean and glimmery that the fish and errant golf balls were happy to be frozen in it. The sun was streaking the falling snow, making it less cold. When I finally made it around the perimeter of the pond without falling, my mother and father gave me a long ovation; they were a united front of tickled, proud parenthood. Those times were gone: gone, gone, forever gone.
"Maybe you could go to college, Sam," my father said after he'd gotten ahold of himself.
"That's a good idea," my mother said. "We'd be happy to pay for it."
"OK," I said, because I was looking at them closely, really scrutinizing them for the first time since I'd been home from prison, and I could see what I'd done to them. Before I burned down the Emily Dickinson House, they seemed to be normal, healthy, somewhat happy Americans who took vacations and gardened and who'd weathered a rough patch or two (when I was a boy, my father left us for three years, and after he left us, my mother started telling me tall tales about the Emily Dickinson House, and all of this is part of the larger story I will get to and couldn't avoid even if I wanted). Now they looked like skeletons dressed in corduroy and loafers. Their eyes were sunken and wanting to permanently retreat all the way back into their skulls. A few minutes earlier, I'd been telling them about my virginity and the lecherous Arthur Andersen accountant. My parents, as far as I knew back then, were both modest Yankees who didn't like to hear about anyone's private business, but the College of Me insisted that it was healthy and necessary to tell the people we love everything. Now I was regretting it. Why do we hurt our parents the way we do? There's no way to make sense of it except as practice for then hurting our children the way we do.
"OK," I said again. "I'll go to college." And then: "I love you both."
"Oh, us too," my father said, and then started weeping again.
"We certainly do," my mother said. And then to my father: "Bradley, quit crying."
Later that night, after my mother had gone to sleep, my father came into my room without knocking, stood over my bed, then leaned down-either to say something to me or to see if I was asleep. I wasn't asleep: I was thinking hopeful thoughts about my future, of how I would go to college and make a clean, honest, painless life for myself, and how proud my parents would be once I'd made it. My father, bent over at the waist the way he was, looked like a crane there to either lift me up with its hook or wreck me with its heavy ball.
"Come downstairs," my father whispered, his face close to mine in the darkness. "I want to show you something."
I got out of bed, followed him downstairs. My father walked into his study, which was-like most of the rooms in the house-lined floor to ceiling with overflowing bookshelves. He sat in a chair, opened the end table drawer next to him, pulled out a Converse shoe box, the sort of box in which you kept your old photos or Christmas cards, and handed it to me. I took the lid off the box and saw that there were envelopes inside, envelopes slit open with a letter opener. The envelopes were addressed to me, all of them. The letters were still inside the envelopes, so I took them out and read them.
There were at least a hundred letters. Some of them, as I mentioned, were from scholars of American literature, damning me to hell, et cetera. There is something underwhelming about scholarly hate mail-the sad literary allusions, the refusal to use contractions-and so I didn't pay much attention to those letters at all. I'd also received several letters from your ordinary arson enthusiasts, which were minor variations on the "Burn, baby, burn" theme. These particular letters didn't affect me much, either. The fact that the world was full of kooks wasn't any bigger news than the fact that the world was full of bores.
But there were other letters. 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 all 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 Eugene O'Neill's home because of what an awful drunk O'Neill was and what a bad example he set for the schoolchildren visiting his home, who needed, after all, more positive role models in the here and now. 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. A dairy farmer in Cooperstown, New York, wanted me to pour gasoline down the chimney of the James Fenimore Cooper House because the dairy farmer couldn't stand the thought of someone being from such a rich family when his family was so awfully poor. "I've had it harder than Cooper ever did," the man wrote. "That family's got money up to here and they charge ten dollars' admission to their home and people pay it. Won't you please burn that son-of-a-bitching house right to the ground for us? We'll pay, too; I'll sell some of our herd if I have to. I look forward to your response."
There were more letters, and they all wanted the same thing. All of them wanted me to burn down the houses of a variety of dead writers-Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Robert Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some of the correspondents wanted me to burn down the homes of writers I'd never even heard of. All of the letter writers were willing to wait for me to get out of prison. And all of them were willing to pay me.
"Wow," I said to my father when I was done reading. He hadn't said anything in a while. It was interesting: when my mother was around, my father always appeared weak minded and softhearted-a slight, unnecessary, and mostly foolish human being. But now, in that room, with those letters, he seemed to me wise-silent and massive like a Buddha in wire-rimmed glasses. I felt the enormity of the situation, in my throat and face and elsewhere. "Why didn't you tell me about these letters while I was in prison?"
He looked at me but didn't say anything. This was a test of sorts, because this, of course, is what the wise do: they test the unwise to make them less so.
"You wanted to protect me," I said, and he nodded. It heartened me to know I could give him the right answer, and so I persisted. "You wanted to protect me from these people who thought I was an arsonist."
My father couldn't leave this one alone. He went into a violent struggle with his better judgment, wrestling with his mouth as he started and stopped himself from speaking a dozen times. It was like watching Atlas gear up to hoist that big boulder we now live on. Finally my father got it out and said sadly, so sadly, "Sam, you are an arsonist."
Oh, how that hurt! But it was true, and I needed to hear it, needed my father to tell it to me, just as we all need our fathers to tell us the truth, as someday I'll tell it to my children, too. And someday my children will do to me what I did to my father: they will deny it, the truth.
"You're wrong," I said. "I'm a college student." I put the top back on the box of letters, handed it back to him, and left before he could say anything else. When I got back in bed, I made myself promise never to think of the letters again. Forget about them, I commanded myself. I thought I could do it, too. After all, wasn't this what college was all about? Emptying your mind of the things you didn't want to remember and filling your mind up with new things before the old, unwanted things could find their way back in?
I left for college two weeks later; it was ten years before I saw my parents again, ten years before I reread those letters, ten years before I met some of the people who'd written the letters, ten years before I found out things about my parents that I'd never suspected and never wanted to know, ten years before I went back to prison, ten years before any of what happened, happened.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. College: Since it was late in the application season, I went to the only school that accepted me-Our Lady of the Lake in Springfield, about twenty miles south of Amherst. It was a Catholic college that had just started accepting men because apparently there weren't enough Catholic women left in the Western world who wanted to pay a lot of money to get an education with no men around except for Jesus and his priests, and even the priests who supposedly ran it didn't want to teach there. A few nuns with nothing else to do other than deliver communion at the early, unpopular masses taught a couple of classes-World Religions 101 and 102-and the rest were taught by normal, irreligious teachers who couldn't get jobs anywhere else.
Excerpted from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by BROCK CLARKE Copyright © 2007 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission.
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