Thursday, February 26, 2009

Can't figure out the hype...

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

So, this is one of the big "buzz" books for fall. I was totally predisposed to like it, 'cause everyone's raving about it. But my honest opinion? Meh. I'd give it two and a half stars, but I've decided to round up because other people seem to like it so much.

If I were to try to describe this novel in a single word, that word would be "quirky." And as a rule, I'm very fond of quirky, but something wasn't working for me here. The book is written as a first person memoir. The eponymous arsonist is Sam Pulsifer, who "accidentally" burned down the Emily Dickinson house when he was 18 years old. The fire resulted in two deaths, and Sam went to prison for 10 years. But he's no hardened criminal. There is a real softness to Sam as he recounts his life story. In fact, he seems almost cognitively challenged somehow. He's not retarded in any way, but there's a slowness about him, his thinking process, and his actions that continually took me out of the story. And there was a surrealness to this tale that just didn't work for me. I don't think it's bad writing. The author's choices were deliberate and well-executed, but simply strange to me. Nothing in the novel was overtly unreal, but nothing was really believable either.

I think the real downfall of this novel for me was that Sam, ultimately, just isn't that likeable. At least to me he wasn't. Still, the book has humor, a strange plot involving a new series of fires being set to writers' homes around New England, some interesting supporting characters, and is well-written in its way. I will be VERY curious to see the response of other readers, and if this book the big hit everybody is predicting.

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