The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout
“In case you haven't noticed, people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because they can't stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it's okay we did whatever we did.” ― Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys
I have often read about dysfunctional families but this book provides one of the best examples I have encountered in some time. I previously read and enjoyed Elizabeth Strout's story-like novel, Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it in spite of the unlikable title character whose presence held the book together, for it was well-written and the vignettes that comprised the book were captivating.
In her follow-up novel, The Burgess Boys, Strout tells a tale of two squabbling brothers who confront their demons, their crumbling love lives and a hate crime case that thrusts them back to their Maine roots. The titular boys of this story are Jim and Bob Burgess who seem to be similar in appearance; both are lawyers who have moved to New York to escape the Maine of their childhood. But under the surface they have very different personalities. Jim is a high-stress trial attorney who’s quick with a cruel rejoinder designed to put people in their place (especially his brother Bob), while Bob has been divorced and works for Legal Aid and can’t shake the guilt of killing his dad in a freak accident as a child.
The two are recalled to Maine when their sister’s son is apprehended for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque. This leads the story into a very contemporary culture-conflict between the local townspeople and a large and growing Somali minority who have recently moved into Maine. One of the supporting characters is a Somali cafe owner who is baffled by the arrogance, racism and cruelty of some of the locals. This aspect of the story serves primarily as a catalyst for growing turmoil in the domestic affairs of the Burgess Boys and their sister. The changes in their dysfunctional relationships provide the main action of the novel. It is how you read and interpret these changes that will likely determine your reaction to the novel. Jim and his wife have difficulties that, while interesting, do not depend on the crisis in Maine. Likewise, Jim and Bob's sister, Susan, had difficulties with her husband (he had left her before the events in the novel happened) and a resulting rough relationship with her son even before the incident in the Mosque. Nonetheless the story hangs together fairly well and is bolstered by Strout’s writing which is undeniably graceful and observant. She surely captures the frenetic pace of New York and relative sluggishness of Maine. But her character arrangements often feel contrived, archetypal and predestined; Jim’s in particular becomes a clichéd symbol of an over-inflated ego.
This is a novel that reminded me of the sort of story that you saw in the headlines of yesterday's newspaper, except it is not done as well as Tom Wolfe, for example in Bonfire of the Vanities or his other superb novels. That is not to suggest that Elizabeth Strout does not write with an elegant style and is able to craft an interesting novel of domestic relations.
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