An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England

May 10, 2009 at 8:47 PM 1 comment

From a Professor’s Letter: In summary, then, I wish for you to burn down the Mark Twain House because Professor Ardor believes Mr. Twain to be something of a [and here you could sense the ashamed pause, lurking between the lines] female pudendum.

Then s/he pulled out a lighter, flicked it, and grabbed a clump of his/her hair. *** was setting her/himself on fire, not starting at the feet the way people at Salem did with their supposed witches, but starting with his/her hair. With his/her hair.

The Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England is a brilliant work of literary fiction, as well as being incredibly funny and suspenseful. The book is a first-person narrative from the point of view of  Sam Pulsifier, a resident of Amherst who burnt down the Emily Dickinson House, one of Amherst’s most famous attractions, and in the process killed two people. He served time in a minimum-security prison in Holyoke, and then after ten years was allowed to leave. He made himself a new life, went to college, and found a wife, Anne Marie. He had two kids. But then it all came back at him.

I suppose I should tell you something of Sam’s past. When he was in prison, many people were sending him letters. There were two kinds of letters sent to him. The first kind were the predictable, “you will burn in hell for this” letters. From literary scholars, professors, and citizens of Amherst, they told him how awful everything he did was. But the second kind of letter was more interesting. They wanted him to burn down other houses. The Frost Residence, the Stowe House, the Twain House, and the lot. For most of the writer’s homes in New England, at least one person wanted them gone.

Anyway, back to the plot. Sam’s life slowly begins to fall down around him. He receives a visit from an old enemy, Thomas Coleman. Thomas’ mother was a tour guide at the Dickinson House. She was there after-hours one night, having sex with Thomas’ father on Emily’s bed. That was the night that Sam burned down the House. They didn’t survive the fire. Thomas visits Sam, vowing revenge on him. Next, a group of bond analysts who were in prison with Sam come along. They want his help burning down other writer’s houses, so they can write memoirs about it. He refuses, and they say he’ll regret it. Then, they leave. A few days later, Anne Marie kicks him out of the house. Thomas told her Sam was having an affair with his wife. He goes back to live with his parents, a dysfunctional couple. His father is a drunkard, and his mother “goes to her job” each day despite having been fired. To make matters worse, someone(s begins burning down other writer’s homes in New England. He begins to try to find out who, trying to remove suspicion from himself. This is all chock-full of twists, red herrings, and suspenseful fun. (And someone sets fire to themself!)

This book is stellar. I could barely tear myself away from it. It was both humorous and tragic. Although it’s a reviewer’s cliche, I think I’d even say It made me laugh! It made me cry! It’s a rare book that can truly do both at once. This book especially resonates if you live or have lived in Massachusetts. I live in Massachusetts, and having been to most of the book’s locations, it’s both funnier and feels more realistic. Sam is a brilliant character, entertaining, snarky, and sad. I highly recommend this. However, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the day after you start reading this. You’ll probably be up all night reading this. I was.

My Rating: 83/100

(Edit: Offensive quote removed, new quote added.)

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sarah Buttenwieser  |  May 10, 2009 at 10:56 PM

    up all night? bad ! but for the cause of a book you can’t tear yourself away from, well, if not good, then understandable (on a weekend).

    great review.

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