Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke
"I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter." So begins one of the most laugh-out-loud tragedies I've read in a while.

Sam is a self-described bumbler, who would probably be a bit behind everyone else even if his adulthood hadn't been artificially delayed by his years in prison. At the age of 18, his life, and possibly his parents' lives, have been ruined by his mistake. After his prison stay, he sets out to begin a normal life, whatever that may mean. His parents seem adrift and resentful (mom's an English teacher and dad's in publishing), even as they go through the motions of being supportive parents. Dad has a cache of letters written to Sam during his prison years, many of them threatening, but, disturbingly, a few from people who'd like to see other author's homes burned down. Then the son of the couple killed in Sam's fire shows up at his door. And soon other writers homes, all of them nearby, start to go up in flames.

This was that odd combination of page-turner and literary finesse; it seemed to be about much more than Sam's story: the weight of history, the fragility of intention, and the secrets that burn us up.

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