New novel draws few laughs

No book better exemplifies the concept of “too much of a good thing” than Brock Clarke’s latest novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Its humorous tone becomes droning after a while. The comedy is too thickly applied to the rough edges of the book’s narrative, as though in an attempt to smooth them over. The protagonist is also disturbingly difficult to sympathize with, rather a blank character on the whole, and displeasingly dumb – not that idiots can’t make good narrators, but this one is not only reserved, but downright unbelievable. The romping amusement of his narration is undercut by his complete obtuseness, which sat very uneasily with me.

Apart from the distracting nature of the novel’s discordant narrator, the book certainly has its high points. To lay down some basic plot: Sam Pulsifer, the protagonist, accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson’s house when he’s 18 years old, receiving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter as he killed a copulating couple who happened to be in the house at the time. The circumstances are already ridiculous, but Clarke, typically, piles on the absurdity. We meet Sam while he’s in jail with a bunch of memoir-writing bonds analysts.

Here’s one typical sentence from the opening of the book:

“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 bonds analyst or a memoirist, for instance – and just got on with it. Life, that is.”

The so-called humor here (“Life, that is”) is heaped on, wound copiously into the overleavened sentences. The carefully modulated simplicity of the sentences is reminiscent of Dave Barry at his worst, a cartoonish kind of flatness.

As you may be able to tell, the prose distracted me from the book’s plot, as well as the description, which is actually quite a shame, as neither of those were as horrendous as what I can only describe as Clarke’s saccharine wit. In any case, shortly after leaving jail, Sam returns to life with his parents briefly, before going off to college. He majors in packaging science, which might have been funny on its own, but together with all of the situational humor, it just feels like Clarke is trying too hard. He meets his wife, which is really quite sweet – I enjoyed that part of the book. Of course, in literature of this sort (to use the term loosely), good things never last; the impetus is generated not only by conflict but by slapstick, externalized conflict, and that’s precisely what happens to Sam.

The man whose parents he killed comes to find him and decides to ruin his life, and Sam sets off on a strange quest to track down the person who’s begun burning down writers’ homes. No, it isn’t him; that particular plot twist, at least, is beyond the author. In fact the complexities that ensue aren’t uninteresting, and for this reason, I won’t spoil them for you. After all, the plot is really the only thing this book has going for it, apart from rare moments of successful comedy.

Some of the more incisive lines have to do with parents (“Why do we hurt our parents the way we do?” the narrator muses. “There’s no way to make sense of it except as practice for then hurting our children the way we do.”) And also on the process of writing: on character creation, his narrator declares, “But it is your business. You made him that way.” If only Clarke had taken his own advice, perhaps Sam might have turned out a bit more three-dimensional.

The central problem with his characterization is its ultimate flatness. It’s very hard to sympathize with someone who is so blatantly – not ‘everyman’ – but ‘any man.’ Sam is almost entirely plastic as a character, blank and unreactive, to the extent where it doesn’t only seem that he’s an avoidant person, it also seems that the moments of poignancy don’t quite fit. This is particularly true when these moments are overburdened with the rhetoric, which for Clarke, passes as humor: “It was like watching a young, overburdened female gringo Sherpa walking toward you, a Sherpa you loved and missed so much.” This sentence, like so many others, tries to do a lot (wax philosophical, descriptive and comedic) and fails equally in every sphere.

Again, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England isn’t a terrible book. It simply isn’t as good as I expected it to be, and suffers from certain annoying quirks of prose and amateurish writing. If you’re a Dave Barry fan, you might like it; if you’re expecting subtle, high-quality literature, don’t read it.