... sometimes the lies you tell are less frightening than the loneliness you might feel if you stopped telling them (p. 278)
At the age of 18 Sam Pulsifer burnt down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst -- "it was an accident!" -- and spent ten years in prison for that act of arson and the (accidental, incidental) deaths of two people in the fire. Having served his sentence, he creates a new life quite separate from the old: house in the suburbs of Amherst, two delightful children, gorgeous wife (100% ignorant of Sam's past), steady job. Then Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who died in the fire, shows up on Sam's doorstep. And Sam's carefully-constructed new life crashes and ... burns.
While Sam was in prison, he received a lot of fan letters -- letters suggesting that he might wish to burn down the heritage home of such-and-such a writer. Now those houses are being burnt down (or lightly singed), there's a detective on Sam Pulsifer's trail, and Sam's determined to discover the culprit and prove himself innocent. He wants to discover the truth.
Sam Pulsifer doesn't take responsibility: not for the fire, not for anything. He defines himself as a bumbler, and nothing's his fault, and he's not actually that good at the mundane details of life. We know this from observation, but he keeps reminding us anyway.
This is a novel about stories: the stories Sam's mother told him about dreadful supernatural menaces in the Emily Dickinson House; the postcards sent from all over the USA by his father during the three-year period where he was absent from the family home; the memoir published by Morgan, a bond analyst who was in prison with Sam and has borrowed some anecdotes; the stories Sam's mother and father tell about one another, and about Sam; the stories Sam tells himself, and others.
Sam (or the author) has a lot to say, none of it good, about Literature. He mocks a book-club meeting -- the book was there to give the women (mostly) a reason to confess to the feelings they'd already had before reading the book, which as far as I could tell they hadn't actually read (p.85) -- and slides in a snide remark or two about Willa Cather, Mark Twain, J. K. Rowling, Edith Wharton (I kicked the novel [Ethan Frome] away from me, something I had been wanting to do for twenty-six years, and in doing so I imagined I was striking a blow on behalf of its many unwilling, barely pubescent readers (p. 194)) and critic and novelist Jane Smiley (though that's a pretty subtle, and rather affectionate, snipe).
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is an entertaining read, full of apparently profound aphorisms about truth, lies, stories, parents and children. And yes, it's about painful truth and a really rather nasty denouement, and Sam finally taking responsibility in an unexpected way.
I read this novel because I wanted a break from genre. It didn't engage me as much as the genre novels I've been reading lately, even though the themes -- murder, parent/child, truth, deception -- are big themes. Some excellent one-liners, though, and a sly sniping humour.
I suppose ... the ability to empathise with the people we hate is exactly the quality that makes us human beings, which makes you wonder why anybody would want to be one. (p. 283)