An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England
Most significant of these is the fire he accidentally set when he was 18, which burned down the Emily Dickinson House, in Amherst, Mass., killing two people who Sam didn’t realize were upstairs "sharing a private, after hours moment on Emily Dickinson’s bed."
The fire sends Sam to prison for 10 years, and when he tries to return to his hometown of Amherst, he finds himself so despised that people spray paint "MURDERER!" on
tedshair his parents’ driveway. He decamps to another Massachusetts city, gets a job at a packaging company, marries, has two children and moves to a suburban subdivision with a name fit for a hero: Camelot.
But Sam is a bad luck knight, and he has made a crucial error in judgment, neglecting to tell his wife the truth about his past during their 10 years together. Inevitably, who should appear at his door but Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who died in the fire. He has come seeking an apology, but nothing Sam can say, particularly in his clumsy, inarticulate way, will ever be enough. So Thomas sets about avenging his parents and ruining Sam’s life.
Thomas ingratiates himself with Sam’s wife and before long becomes her lover. Exiled from Camelot, Sam returns reluctantly to Amherst, where he finds that his parents, who are keeping their own destructive secrets, have fallen into dissipation. They provide no help in his errant quest to discover who has been setting the fires.
In fact, Sam begins to believe that his own mother might be responsible. She keeps disappearing from the house, and he discovers she has lost her job as a schoolteacher, is leading a double life and is acting increasingly unpredictable.
Equally disturbing is what he learns about his father and a woman named Dierdre, who also becomes a suspect in Sam’s mind. At one point Dierdre tells him she was happy until he returned home." ‘You should never have come back,’" she says.
Perhaps the arsonists are a group of shady bond analysts whom Sam met in prison and who once showed up at his door asking for tips about house burning so they might collaborate on a memoir about the experience. It’s a novel, nested within a memoir, nested within a how to guide. Sam dispenses regular advice that he hopes to include in his as yet unwritten "Arsonist’s Guide." One such nugget of truth comes to him after he discovers his wife’s affair and punches Thomas in the jaw: "It was the first time I’d ever punched anyone, and it was the most unsatisfying feeling in the world, and I knew immediately it is better to be wounded than to wound."
The book is told in the form of a memoir, in the voice of a heroic fool who has trouble articulating his emotions but in striving to do so creates his own unique style. His observations can be naive and absurd, yet at the same time they’re oddly vivid. Here, Sam describes his wife soon after
tedhair reviews he tries to return to Camelot:
"She was wearing
tedhair reviews a long black skirt and those black boots I loved, and a white, nearly transparent top that bulged in all the right places..
"She looked like a Mediterranean General MacArthur with hair extensions and without the corncob pipe. She had a military bearing, is what I’m saying."
It’s nearly impossible not to care about and laugh with Sam. He’s a misunderstood outcast, a knight errant on a quest to clear his name. But in this hilarious and original novel he does much more: He appeals to the fool in everyone and comforts us in knowing that we’re not alone. "The truth," he explains, "is that the world is
tedshair full of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that you’re special is just one more thing you’ve bumbled.".