THE BURGESS BOYS
The Burgess Boys has the ring of a story about outlaws in the old West. But it’s about lawyers from small-town Maine instead. This new novel by Elizabeth Strout, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for Olive Kitteridge, features two Burgess brothers, as well as a sister. Strout, whose first books were Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me, writes most comfortably about women, but this book is mostly about the midlife crises of men.
Strout begins the book with a mother-daughter pair from Shirley Falls, Maine, like the title characters of Amy and Isabelle, gossiping about the siblings’ childhoods there.
Jim is the family showboat, a big-time trial lawyer who won the equivalent of the O.J. Simpson case and loves being a public personality. Then there are the twins: sad-sack Bob, the book’s most likable character, and frumpy Susan, a hopeless loser. Susan has a good-for-nothing son named Zach, one of those dangerous teenagers who seems like a quiet, unthreatening loner until he does something awful.
The awful act in The Burgess Boys is so strange that the book can hardly accommodate it. Shirley Falls has a sizable population of Somalis, or, as bigoted local residents call them, “Somalians.” Maine has lost much of its young work force, and these Somalis are drawn to its peace, quiet and lack of political strife. But then — and you might have to read this sentence twice — Zack mischievously rolls a frozen pig’s head into their mosque during Ramadan. Why does he do it? Zack can’t explain.
Jim is urgently needed to deal with his nephew’s legal troubles. So he makes the first of this book’s many trips to and from Maine, and he grudgingly does what he can to scare off anyone who wants to see Zach prosecuted. But his abrasive style isn’t much help in this ticklish situation. Bob, a legal aid lawyer whom Jim calls “Knucklehead” when he’s feeling affectionate, sizes up Zach’s situation much more astutely.
“Your Uncle Jim loves photographers,” Bob tells Zach. “He’ll be jealous if you take over as family media hog.”
Strout gets through two-thirds of The Burgess Boys by chronicling the ways the pig’s-head crisis galvanizes the family. Perhaps surprisingly, it gives the much-belittled Bob new authority over the self-satisfied Jim. The brothers’ shifting rapport is so well evoked that their scenes together keep the book enveloping. Then Strout loses track of important parts of her plot while paying needlessly close attention to others, so that the story’s latter stages become frustratingly one-note and naive.
While Strout espouses empathy with the Shirley Falls Somalis, she draws them without much specificity. She creates no serious reaction to Zach’s assault on them. And she gives one Somali man, Abdikarim, such preternatural kindness that he cares more about Zach’s well-being than his own group’s.
Other detours involve Susan, who spends tedious hours with an elderly tenant in her house. Susan also turns out to have had a Jewish boyfriend, and Judaism is far removed from the other Burgesses’ experiences. (Both brothers say “Oy” a lot, but only because it’s an expression they’ve picked up from other lawyers.) The book also devotes attention to Jim’s seemingly happy, glamorous marriage, but the reader would have to be as clueless as Zach not to see where that’s headed.
Some authors would acknowledge all this as a plot and a half. But Strout has a big twist in store, unearthing one of those long-buried family secrets that (as a jacket copy writer would say) will change the characters’ lives forever.
It has to do with the freak accident that killed the Burgesses’ father. What does that have to do with a hate crime against African immigrants? Why, at this moment, should it cause one Burgess boy to implode? How conveniently does it reconfigure the whole Burgess family? For all its potential and Strout’s proven skill, The Burgess Boys asks too many questions and offers too few interesting answers.