Clarke, Brock 1968-
Clarke, Brock 1968-
Born November 15, 1968, in Springfield, MA; son of Peter Paslee (an English professor) and Elaine Giustina (a dental hygienist) Clarke; married Lane Ulrich, June 29, 1996; children: Quinn Alonzo. Education: Dickinson College, B.A., 1990; University of Rochester, Ph.D., 1998. Religion: "Lapsed Catholic."
Office—English Department, University of Cincinnati, 2600 Clifton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45221. Agent—Elizabeth Sheinkman, Curtis Brown Group Ltd., Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, lecturer in English, 1997-98; Clemson University, Clemson, SC, assistant professor of English, 1998-2001; University of Cincinnati, OH, assistant professor of English, 2001—; also director of creative writing program.
Modern Language Association, Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Mary McCarthy Prize for short fiction, 2000, for What We Won't Do; Walter Dakin Fellowship, Sewanee Writers' Conference, 2002; literature fellowship in prose, National Endowment for the Arts, 2008. Wesleyan Writers Conference fellow; Lightsey fellowship; Tennessee Williams scholarship; Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship; New York State Writers' Institute award; Christopher Isherwood fellowship.
The Ordinary White Boy (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
What We Won't Do (short stories), Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2002.
Carrying the Torch (short stories), University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004.
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (novel), Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, Believer, Georgia Review, Southern Review, New England Review, American Fiction, Brooklyn Review, South Carolina Review, Mississippi Review, Journal, Twentieth Century Literature, Southwestern American Literature, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Work represented in the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on National Public Radio's Selected Shorts. Fiction editor, Cincinnati Review.
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England has been optioned for film by Warner Independent.
Brock Clarke has established a reputation as an author of fiction, sometimes darkly comic, about average Americans coping with less-than-ideal lives. He has described the protagonist-narrators of his novels, Lamar of The Ordinary White Boy and Sam Pulsifer of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, as flawed and fumbling people. "Both Sam and Lamar are trying to be good but are ethically compromised," he told Shawn Miller in an interview for the Web site Bookslut. "These are the kinds of narrators and characters I'm especially interested in."
The Ordinary White Boy, set in Clarke's hometown of Little Falls, New York, is driven by the disappearance and suspected murder of shopkeeper Mark Ramirez, who is also, as described in the book, the "Puerto Rican patriarch of Little Falls's lone minority household." Wondering if Ramirez was a casualty of race-based violence, local boy Lamar, a reporter at his father's newspaper, investigates but is repeatedly sidetracked by his indifference to the man's fate and the desire to find more entertaining things to do. Lamar eventually discovers that Ramirez was not the victim of racism after all and, in the process, confronts the unpleasant reality of who he, his friends, and his family truly are.
Some reviewers were impressed with Clarke's depiction of that reality. Booklist critic Gillian Engberg observed that although the novel's hero is not very sympathetic, "this messy honesty is the book's strength." A different view came from a Publishers Weekly contributor, describing the novel as a "rather dull tale" with a style "as flat as life in Little Falls." Joanna M. Burkhadt, however, remarked in Library Journal that Clarke offers "insightful philosophy about innocence and guilt, bravery and cowardice, substance and drama," and a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributor concluded that The Ordinary White Boy is "a subtle commentary on society."
Sam Pulsifer, the protagonist of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, has served ten years in prison for accidentally burning down poet Emily Dickinson's historic home and killing two people he did not know were present. After his release, he marries and tries to restart his life while hiding his past. It catches up with him, though, when numerous copycat fires are set at authors' homes in New England. Innocent but still a suspect, Sam sets out to find the arsonist, bumbling comically and weaving a web of lies along the way.
The novel, written in the form of a memoir, is to some extent a commentary on storytelling, several critics reported. "Clarke's novel is, in part, a handbook on the dangers, clichés and compulsions of narrative," remarked Jessica Winter in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, adding: Clarke "suggests that we're all subject to the whims of the stories we tell ourselves; they're as merciless as they are irresistible." Charlie Humphrey, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, noted that the book "is stacked with literary references, self-references and clever memoirs within fiction." Jason B. Jones, a critic for the PopMatters Web site, said the novel "unsparingly anatomizes our penchant for narrating our lives."
Some critics also praised Clarke's lampooning of literary trends—book clubs, memoirs of questionable veracity, the Harry Potter novels—and of the pretensions of academia. "Clarke's satire scorches a wide expanse of our cultural landscape," noted Daniel Dyer in Cleveland's Plain Dealer. Elizabeth Hand, a contributor to the Village Voice, took pleasure in the novel's "many priceless setpieces skewering the literary life." New York Times Book Review critic Janet Maslin, although finding the book "eventually overplotted to the point of overkill," thought it "still manages to remain sharp-edged and unpredictable, punctuated by moments of choice absurdist humor." Humphrey recommended the novel "to anyone who wants to read the best, newest manifestation of great American writing," while Jones called it "a splendid book: original and funny, smart and dark," adding: "Clarke's book ought to make us think about the stories we tell ourselves to keep the howling demons at bay and, hopefully, to laugh honestly at them for what they really are."
Clarke's short story collections, What We Won't Do and Carrying the Torch, have both earned praise from several reviewers, with some noting that Clarke continues to punch holes in the concept of the American dream. Reviewing What We Won't Do, a Publishers Weekly contributor commented that the author "probes the hearts and minds of the disaffected and the unfulfilled." The critic felt that while Clarke sometimes falls short of conveying his premise effectively, the collection has "intriguing conceits … as well as flashes of talent." A Kirkus Reviews contributor deemed the author "too fond of novelty" in his stories, resulting in an "uneven debut." On the other hand, Tim Feeney noted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that the stories "combine the comic and the deeply sad to create something at once bleak and radiant."
The nine stories in Carrying the Torch, related a Publishers Weekly critic, illustrate "the plight of … unfaithful husbands, dissatisfied wives and angry children in search of home and meaning." Booklist reviewer Carol Haggas found the tales "both subdued and effusive, simultaneously bitter with hard-won wisdom and giddy with dewy-eyed optimism."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of The Ordinary White Boy, p. 2084; February 1, 2002, Bonnie Johnston, review of What We Won't Do, p. 921; September 1, 2005, Carol Haggas, review of Carrying the Torch, p. 62.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2001, review of What We Won't Do, p. 1625.
Library Journal, August, 2001, Joanna M. Burkhadt, review of The Ordinary White Boy, p. 159.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 2007, Jessica Winter, "Seared by Childhood Tales, a Man Examines His Compulsions," p. 5.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 2, 2001, review of The Ordinary White Boy, p. E9.
New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2007, Janet Maslin, "Burn Down a Poet's House, and the Mail Just Pours In," p. E7; September 23, 2007, David Bowman, "Torchlit Crit," p. 30.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 2, 2007, Charlie Humphrey, "Comic Novel a Real Barn Burner," p. E5.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), September 2, 2007, Daniel Dyer, "Thread of Fire Binds Brock Clarke's Scorching ‘Arsonist's Guide,’ p. 41; July 18, 2005, review of Carrying the Torch, p. 62.
Publishers Weekly, August 6, 2001, Judith Rosen, review of The Ordinary White Boy, p. 47; August 13, 2001, review of The Ordinary White Boy, p. 283; December 24, 2001, review of What We Won't Do, p. 41; July 18, 2005, review of Carrying the Torch, p. 62.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2002, Tim Feeney, review of What We Won't Do, p. 154.
Village Voice, August 21, 2007, Elizabeth Hand, "The Literati Get Some Heat in Brock Clarke's Blazing Comic Novel."
Arsonistsguide.com,http://arsonistsguide.com/ (January 19, 2007), brief biography.
Bookslut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (January 7, 2009), Shawn Miller, interview with Brock Clarke.
Collected Miscellany,http://www.collectedmiscellany.com/ (September 29, 2003), Kevin Holtsberry, "Brock Clarke," interview with the author.
Monsters & Critics,http://movies.monstersandcritics.com/ (October 12, 2007), "Warner Independent Set to Adapt Brock Clarke's ‘Arsonist's Guide.’"
PopMatters Web site, http://www.popmatters.com/ (September 24, 2007), Jason B. Jones, review of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England.
University of Cincinnati Web site,http://www.uc.edu/ (December 10, 2007), Wendy Beckman, "Brock Clarke Continues to Set the Literary World on Fire: UC Associate Professor Clarke receives 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship."