Read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England Online
Authors: Brock Clarke
Sam Pulsifer has come to the end of a very long and unusual journey. He spent ten years in prison for accidentally burning down poet Emily Dickinson’s house – and unwittingly killing two people in the process. He emerged aged twenty-eight and set about creating a new life for himself. He went to college, found love, got married, fathered two children, and made a new start – and then watched in almost silent awe as the vengeful past caught up with him, right at his own front door.
As, one by one, the homes of other famous New England writers are torched, Sam knows that this time he is most certainly not guilty. To prove his innocence, he sets out to uncover the identity of this literary-minded arsonist. What he discovers, and how he deals with the reality of his discoveries, is both hilariously funny and heartbreakingly sad.
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
is a novel disguised as a memoir; a heartbreaking story about truth and honesty and the damage they do.
Brock Clarke is the author of three previous books:
The Ordinary White Boy
and two story collections. His stories and essays have appeared in the
Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory
, and the
and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and
New Stories from the South
anthologies and on NPR’s
. He lives in Cincinnati and teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
At the end of an hour we saw a far-away town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond it on a hill, a vast gray fortress, with towers and turrets, the first I had ever seen out of a picture.
“Bridgeport?” said I, pointing.
“Camelot,” said he.
— Mark Twain,
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
The memoirs written by the members of the Autobiographical Association … already had a number of factors in common. One of them was nostalgia, another was paranoia, a third was a transparent craving on the part of the authors to appear likeable. I think they probably lived out their lives on the principle that what they were, and did, and wanted, should above all look pretty. Typing out and making sense out of these compositions was an agony to my spirit until I hit on the method of making them expertly worse; and everyone concerned was delighted with the result.
— Muriel Spark,
Loitering with Intent
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. This story is locally well known, and so I won’t go into it here. It’s probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there’s me.
So anyway, I served my time, and since the sentencing judge took mercy on me, I served my time at the minimum-security prison up at Holyoke. At Holyoke there were bond analysts and lawyers and day traders and city managers and school administrators, all of them caught with their hands in the till and nothing at all like me, an eighteen-year-old accidental arsonist and murderer with blood and soot on his hands and a heavy heart and plenty to learn and no high school diploma. I flung in and tried. I took a biweekly self-improvement seminar called the College of Me, in which I learned the life-changing virtues of patience, hard work, and positive attitude, and in which I earned my GED. I also hung around this group of high-stepping bond analysts from Boston who were in the clink for insider trading. While they were inside, the bond analysts had set out to write their fond, freewheeling memoirs about their high crimes and misdemeanors and all the cashish — that’s the way they talked — they had made while screwing old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress, so I paid extra attention during their memoir-brainstorming sessions, listened closely to their debates over how much the reading public did or did not need to know about their tortured childhoods in order to understand why they needed to make so much money in the manner in which they made it. I took notes as they divided the world between those who had stuff taken from them and those who took, those who did bad things in a good way — gracefully, effortlessly — and those bumblers who bumbled their way through life.
“Bumblers,” I said.
“Yes,” they said, or one of them did. “Those who bumble.”
“Give me an example,” I said, and 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 bond analyst or a memoirist, for instance — and just got on with it. Life, that is.
I learned something from everyone, is the point, even while I was fending off the requisite cell-block buggerer, a gentle but crooked corporate accountant at Arthur Andersen who was just finding his true sexual self and who told me in a cracked, aching voice that he wanted me — wanted me, that is, until I told him I was a virgin, which I was, and which, for some reason, made him not want me anymore, which meant that people did not want to sleep with twenty-eight-year-old male virgins, which I thought was useful to know.
Finally, I learned to play basketball from this black guy named Terrell, which was one of the big joys of my life in prison and which ended badly. Terrell, who had written checks to himself when he was the Worcester city treasurer, was in prison for the last three of my ten years, and whenever he would beat me in one-on-one (this wasn’t often, even when I was first learning to play, because although he was very strong, Terrell was also shorter than I was and about as sleek as a fire hydrant; plus, he was twice my age and his knees were completely shot and would crack like dry wood when he ran) — whenever he would beat me, Terrell would yell out, “I’m a grown-ass man.” That sounded good, and so after our last game, which I won easily, I also yelled out, “I’m a grown-ass man.” Terrell thought I was mocking him, so he started hitting me around the head, and since I get passive in the face of true anger, I just stood there and took Terrell’s abuse and didn’t try to defend myself. As the guards dragged him to solitary, he promised that he would beat on me a little more once he got out, which he shouldn’t have, because, of course, the guards then gave him more solitary than they might have otherwise. By the time Terrell got out, I’d already been released from prison and was home, living with my parents.
That didn’t work out too well, living with my parents. For one, my burning down the Emily Dickinson House caused them some real heartbreak, because my mother was a high school English teacher, my father an editor for the university press in town, and beautiful words really mattered to them; they didn’t care anything for movies or TV, but you could always count on a good poem to make them cry or sigh meaningfully. For another, their neighbors in Amherst weren’t exactly happy that I’d burned down the town’s most famous house and killed two of its citizens in the bargain, so they took it out on my parents. People never had trouble finding our old, creaking house on Chicopee Street: it was always the one with the driveway that had been spray-painted
(which I understand) or
(which I don’t), or with some quote from Dickinson herself that seemed to promise vengeance, but you could never tell exactly what the vengeance might be, because there were a lot of words and the spray-painter always got sloppy and illegible from fatigue or maybe overemotion. It only got worse when I went home after prison. There was some picketing by the local arts council and some unwelcome, unflattering news coverage, and neighborhood kids who cared nothing about Emily Dickinson or her house started egging the place and draping our noble birches with toilet paper, and for a while there it was like Halloween every day. Then things really got serious and someone slashed every tire on my parents’ Volvo, and once, in a fit of anger or grief, someone hurled a Birkenstock through one of our bay windows. It was a man’s right shoe, size twelve.
All of this happened within the first month of my return home. At the end of the month, my parents suggested I move out. I remember it was August, because the three of us were sitting on our front porch and the neighbors’ flags were out, caught between the Fourth of July and Labor Day and in full flutter, and the light was spectral through the maple and birch leaves and it was all very pretty. You can imagine how much my parents’ request that I leave home wounded me, even though the College of Me said that life after prison wouldn’t be easy and that I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking otherwise.