A reader’s guide to zany, madcap in fiction

Life lesson learned about myself while reading An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke: I prefer my slapstick humor visually served up by Leslie Nielsen, as opposed to in book form, like this.

Sam Pulcifer accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson’s house and inadvertently kills a married couple that was hip-locked in a bedroom. He does time in prison with memoir-writing white-collar criminals, and afterward goes off to college, meets and marries his wife. Pops out a few kids and sets up shop in a suburb where shirtless lawn mowing is a social infraction. And then one day, the son of the people who died in the fire begins causing havoc in Sam’s life. Everything else follows; Sam develops a taste for Knickerbocker beer.

The reading process for this book, and say a similar style of book like I Love You, Beth Cooper, sent me through these stages of grief:

1. “When he saw me, my father made a kind of wounded-animal noise that I took to mean one-third surprise, one-third welcome home, one-third please don’t look at me, I’m hideous. … ” Ohmygosh. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read in my life!

2. More than halfway through the book, Sam is watching his mother in the window of a building where a book group of adults dressed like wizards and witches are filing out into the night. ” … and then commenced to talk about the fog and how it was a very English fog, and then there was a long sincere discussion about about how very magical fog was and how they’d be sure to wake their kids when they got home to show them the fog and then find a passage in the book featuring fog …” To my way of thinking, this remains pure comic gold, this social satire, this bookie social satire. Good geeky fun.

3. And then Part 4 splats. Instead of a few tiresome and absurd hiccups in the plot and an occasional twinge of annoyance at Sam’s run-on, free association voice, everything is derailed. New characters are introduced. Old characters suddenly have knowledge of things that Sam didn’t know they knew, and Sam makes out with a random woman. And then there is that voice. That easy-deviating, non-stop talking voice. Not only did I struggle to follow what was happening, but I struggled to care to follow what was happening.

4. Pure exhaustion.

What a buzz kill. If only this book had carried the momentum of the first three parts into the finale. Brock Clarke obviously has a strong grasp of voice — maybe even too strong — and he is quite funny. But the madcap and the loco clarinet sounds that would certainly accompany the antics in the movie version made me dizzy.

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