Book Review: ‘An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England’ by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New EnglandAn Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England by Brock Clarke

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This will probably be one of those books I come back to later and end up being like ‘oh man this is so awesome what’s wrong with me,’ but eh. For now, an average rating…mostly because I didn’t like the narrator.

I had the same problem with The Kite Runner, where I enjoyed the narrative and the style, but the main character is such a wet blanket that I gave the book several angry glares in frustration at how completely he’s borking things up. (Tearing a book up would, of course, be sacrilege of the worst sort.)

Anyway, there is a nice piece of misdirection going on here—I thought I’d had the ending figured out and all that—but it turns out that it’s not so hard to fall into the narrator’s obliviousness. I’m tempted to call him an unreliable narrator because there are so many things he overlooks or misinterprets, and the whole time there’s a sense that the surreal atmosphere (which comes with some lovely descriptions) is actually a product of him lying to himself. So how much do you trust him, really? How culpable is he—are the people accusing him as incompetent as they seem (I see far better police procedure on ‘Psych’…from Shawn), or is this all a smokescreen?

This guy.

Because there are so many moments of metafiction in this story, I think it’s valid to ask the above questions. And before you ask…no, I wasn’t expecting the metafiction. Yes, given the title of the story, this makes me a total idiot, as it may be physically impossible for a writer to talk about people’s relationship with writers without getting kind of meta.

There is also the point raised about the difference about a memoir and a novel, but it is so meta and so closely tied to the ending that I won’t go into it. Feel free to bring it up if you want to discuss, though.

The style itself is fine. There is some repetitive phrasing that is probably far less irritating if you don’t read the entire thing at once, but by and large there’s a subtle sense of absurdity that carries through nicely. And, again, it does make me question the reliability of the narrator, which is something I enjoy.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I were nostalgic about the area it’s set in, but I’ve never even been there. The book is fairly localized, but on the other hand there are other things you can wax nostalgic about if you really need to. (Also, super old houses wig me out a little. Look, I grew up in Southern California. Things built in the 1950s are old there.)

Anyway, I still can’t decide how I feel about the ending. I wanted the narrator to not be a wet blanket for at least five minutes and straighten out his life. 50% isn’t bad….

View all my reviews


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