Strout's Burgess Boys Surpasses Olive Kitteridge

The Burgess Boys: A Novel (2013)
Elizabeth Strout
Random House 9781400006768
* * * * *

Forget Appalachia or the mean streets of urban America. In the literary world these are garden spots when compared with interior Maine. In the novels of Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft, this is where axe murders, psychos, and unspeakable terrors reside, to say nothing of the feral trailer dwellers depicted by Carolyn Chute. At best, inland Maine is a place time forgot, as in John Irving’s Cider House Rules, or the resting place of the American Dream, as in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Elizabeth Strout won’t resurrect life beyond the coast in her latest, The Burgess Boys, but it sure is one terrific piece of writing–even better, in my view, that her 2008 Olive Kitteridge, which won a Pulitzer.

The Burgess Boys centers on brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, Bob’s twin sister, Susan, and her son, Zach. The brothers are a typical American story–two small town guys who impressed the locals but couldn’t wait to catch the first bus out of their postindustrial town and reinvent themselves in the big city. In Jim’s case, he used his cleverness and silver tongue to parlay a high-profile lost-cause legal case into a dramatic victory that secured a partnership in a high-powered New York City law firm and marriage with the sophisticated Helen. Outwardly, he possesses the entire package: money, fine things, an upscale apartment, fancy vacations, a doting wife, and grown kids that ignore him. Bob, also a lawyer, isn’t (and never was) in his big brother’s league, but even though he’s made a muck of a few things (divorce, a job in New York’s break-down lane, sloppy personal habits), he too was happy to flee Shirley Falls, Maine if, for no other reason, he associates it with the accident his four-year-old self caused that killed the Burgess paterfamilias. In short, Shirley Falls remembers the Burgess boys–especially Jim–but they are doing their best never to think about their roots. And so they would have lived out their days, were it not for a frantic phone call from Susan, whose son Zach got into a scrape with the law. Fancy pants Jim can’t be bothered and convinces Bob to make a quick trip north to secure a local lawyer to clean up the mess. It’s never that simple, is it?

Those who know Maine will recognize Shirley Falls as a thinly disguised stand-in for Lewiston–a former industrial powerhouse whose textile manufacturers fled decades ago, leaving the city with empty factories, a declining population, a ruined tax base, and lots of cheap housing. In other words, a perfect place to relocate refugee immigrants. Lewiston received several thousand Somalis and Bantus, most of them via the greater Atlanta area, where crime and xenophobia made them feel less than welcome. Mainers weren’t crazy about them either, though at least the Somalis were physically safer there. That is, until Zach did something very stupid: he secured a frozen pig’s head from a local abattoir and tossed it into a storefront used as a makeshift mosque–during Ramadan no less!

The “crime” itself is a misdemeanor, but then that’s never that simple either. Not when local knee-jerk liberals want to make it their cause célèbre, Somali families are terrified, and ambitious attorneys and politicians smell upward mobility if they can quash a “hate crime.” Poor Zach can’t even explain why he did it, other than it was supposed to be a “joke.” When it’s clear that no one’s laughing, he’s scared out of his mind. We see him for what he is–a screwed up kid dealt a bad hand (single mom, absentee father, hand-to-mouth existence, lousy schooling, a job at Wal-Mart), but now he’s the one thing he never wanted to be: the center of attention.   

Strout uses this drama to probe others: family secrets, bullying, perceptions and realities…. Above all, it’s a book that teaches us never to confuse the masks people wear in public with the psyches of those behind the masks. The book is taut in language, psychological tension, and revelatory power. One of the year’s best literary works, this one is sure to be shortlisted for a host of prizes. And is sure is proof that Olive Kitteridge was no fluke.--Rob Weir

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