An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England

Having recently finished reading it, I’m unsure if I liked it or not.

On the one hand, I frequently found myself wanting to punch the protagonist – Sam Pulsifer – in the face. He was that annoying. The guy makes all kinds of dumb decisions. That might be the wrong word. Plenty of his problems are due to his own unthinking inaction; not so much making conscious mistakes as inertly flopping through life. He calls himself a “bumbler.” He also has an incredibly annoying habit of imagining all kinds of motives and thoughts in other people. Sam’s father has frequent parties, which Sam has never attended, and featuring people Sam has never met. Yet he spends much time describing the appearances, jobs, and emotional lives of those attendees.

On the other hand, my intense dislike has to be a sign of good character development, right? Surely it requires great skill to raise emotions as intense as a desire to physically harm someone who is no more than words on a page. Also, by the end of the book, I sort of felt sorry for the guy. By the end, he claims to no longer be a bumbler. Not sure if I believed it. He did, though, seem to learn temper his judgments.

So Sam was annoying, but I warmed to him by the end. The story itself was the bigger issue.

Basically, as a teen, Sam burned down the Emily Dickinson house, killing two people, accidentally, he claims. He does ten years, leaves prison, earns a degree, marries, and has a family. Then the past comes alive and destroys his present. Also, someone does a copycat job on other dead writers’ homes in the area. Naturally, Sam becomes a prime suspect.

That’s a crazy plot, but not too crazy. At points, everything seemed believable. At others, not so much. It was like the book couldn’t decide if it was some kind of loony Carl Hiaasen type adventure, or realistic fiction. Ditto the characters who populate the story. Some, like the recurring group called the bond analysts, were stereotypical and flat. Others, like Sam’s wife, seemed like genuine people.

The whole thing made me feel like I was missing something. Like a novice in another language, I could recognize it, and even snatch hold of a few phrases, but comprehension was beyond me. Rather than more vocabulary and grammar, though, I think I needed more literary knowledge. The book, I think, had lots of smart commentary on books, writers, and the literary scene. Only I’m not well read enough to get the satire. Having finished the book, then, I feel like someone who’s heard an inside joke, but only has half the inside knowledge.

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