Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Poor Feckless Sam

I recently finished An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. It was promoted as an absurd, hilarious, wacky and darkly comic novel. I can partially agree with the wacky and darkly comic description. Sam Pulsifer is sent to prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickenson's house and killing the two people who were in the house, though he was unaware of their presence. He rebuilds his life after ten years in prison but has no contact with his parents and fails to reveal his past to the wife he meets in college while training to be a packaging scientist (an amusing profession cleverly described). He seems a passive, feckless soul, and when he discovers that the homes of other famous writers are going up in smoke, implicating him, he sets out in a clumsy and ill advised way to uncover the identity of that arsonist. His ineptitude can be both amusing and alarming to the reader. He is, I suppose, the fool in all of us, and much of this satire contains clever writing. However, Sam's sadly self-destructive and clueless ways after a time became annoying. His self-awareness seems to be undeveloped or hidden beneath layers of denial. He appears to have little sense of the consequences of his actions. Sam is not unlikable despite all of this. As the tale grows darker, and his life falls apart, you are saddened by the the disastrous impact of major secrets kept between father and mother, mother and son, husband and wife. The lack of information and understanding Sam has for his parents is astounding. The unraveling becomes hard to witness as he continues to make very poor choices.

This unusual novel manages at times to be both absurd and ultimately tragic. Perhaps my sense of humor is such that I could not fully appreciate the outrageous elements of absurdist humor. However, the author has written a truly original and inventive tale which might be just your cup of tea.

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