A review of

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke

Central question: If fiction is better, why tell the truth?
Format: 320 pp., cloth; Size: 6" x 9"; Price: $23.95; Publisher: Algonquin Books; Cover design: Anne Winslow; Typefaces: Minion Pro, Meta Bold; Number of writers’ homes damaged by fire: eight; What a good novel does, according to the author: “Makes the world seem as big as we don’t always want it to be”; Representative passage: “This is yet another piece of advice that’ll go in my arsonist’s guide: if you lead, they will follow, especially if it’s painfully cold outside and your followers don’t want to be left in the unheated van. If you lead, under exactly these kinds of circumstances, they will follow.”

Eighty pages into this, his second novel, Brock Clarke takes a seeming swipe at his first. His narrator, Sam Pulsifer, is wandering through a bookstore when he begins to feel bad for fiction and poetry, those “obsolete states” that have been “mostly gobbled up” by the store’s memoir section, “the Soviet Union of literature.” Sam picks up The Ordinary White Boy—Clarke’s first novel—since he too had “been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning.” But he finds that the novel is not very different from the memoirs, and he decides “never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—David Haglund

David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers. He lives in Brooklyn.

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