NEA Literature Fellowships

Brock Clarke

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(2008 - Prose)

From the novel An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England

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' Mount Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys and Lizzie Borden and her axe 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 hand 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 bi-weekly 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 also earned my G.E.D. 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 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, and 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 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. "One who bumbles."

"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 memoirist, for instance - and just got on with it. Life, that is.

© 2007 by Brock Clarke. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Brock Clarke is the author of two novels (An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England and The Ordinary White Boy) and two short story collections (Carrying the Torch and What We Won't Do). He has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction. His fiction and essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, One Story, Southern Review, Georgia Review, and New England Review; in the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South annual anthologies; and on NPR's Selected Shorts. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

Author's Statement

With the help of an NEA Fellowship, I'll be able to take a year off from teaching at the University of Cincinnati and work, full-time, on my novel, Exley. The novel is currently under contract with Algonquin Books; with the help of an NEA Fellowship, I'll be able to travel to Watertown, New York (where the novel is set), where I'll research and write the novel and (again, with the help of an NEA Fellowship) be able to meet Algonquin's September 2009 deadline. Without an NEA, I doubt I would have the time and opportunity to meet that deadline, and for that matter, to write the book I want to write. I'm grateful, beyond grateful, to the NEA for its support.