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


The Celestials Fails to Shine

The Celestials
Karen Shepard
Tin House Books 9781935639558
* *

There’s a popular proverb that goes: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  To this I would add: When someone hands you a lean, juicy sirloin, don’t chop it up, mix it with Wonder Bread crumbs, and make a second-rate hamburger. Kate Shepard has done the literary equivalent of the latter by serving us a unique tale, crumbling it, blending it with some of the blandest elements of Victorian romance, and trying to pass it off as fine literature. It doesn’t work; The Celestials is palatable in the way that a fast food burger is palatable–vaguely filling, but hardly a well-rounded meal.

T’is a shame because in the hands of a more skilled novelist, Shepard’s tale would have been a corker. The history behind the tale is fascinating. In 1870, North Adams, Massachusetts, shoe manufacturer Calvin Sampson faced labor unrest led by the Knights of St. Crispin. The Crispins wanted to reduce their workday from 11 hours to 10 and a raise, which the parsimonious Sampson could surely have afforded given the fortune he made selling shoes during the Civil War and the lucrative contracts in his possession. Instead of negotiating with his mostly Irish and French-Canadian laborers, he hired 75 scabs–in this case, Chinese lads aged 16-22 imported from California on a gang labor contract. Of them, only their foreman, “Charles” Sing, spoke any English. They arrived in North Adams unaware they were strikebreakers, but willing to work 11-hour days for 90 cents per day, half of what the Crispins were earning. This is the first known use of Chinese scabs in American labor history.

The Chinese arrived at a peculiar moment in history–a ten-year period in which those once viewed as exotic “Celestials” were inexorably transformed into the “Yellow Peril,” and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned future emigration to the United States. It was also a time in which more than 99% of all Chinese in America lived west of the Rockies. How would such Celestials, both far from home and far from the support of an ethnic enclave, survive in North Adams with her remoteness and unforgiving winters?

Shepard populates her novel with real people, including Sampson and his wife, Julia; Sing and his future wife, Ida Wilburn; the zealous Baptist proselytizer Fannie Blasingame and her gardener, Lue Gim Geng  (whose hybrid orange launched Florida’s citrus industry); and numerous others. What she doesn’t do is delve very deeply into the lives of the befuddled Chinese youths cut off from friends, family, and most things familiar. Although Samson hired 50 more Chinese in 1871, almost all left North Adams when their contract expired in 1873, and all but Sing and Geng were gone before 1880. (Both left before their deaths, Geng following Blasingame, his employer, and Sing fleeing when his store failed.) Shepard overplays the exoticism angle and would have us believe that hostility between whites and Chinese eventually cooled. That’s not what happened.

What could have been an elaborate fictive weaving of class, culture, and ideology gives way to the most conventional of all stories: a romance. It centers on Julia Sampson, whose 13 pregnancies all ended in either miscarriage or infant death, but who suddenly gives birth to a child whose features more than suggest an assignation between herself and one of the Celestials. Alas, this plot line means that our weaving unravels and we are left with the dullest and most recycled thread of all–the suppressed longings of white, Victorian women. Put simply, Julia just isn’t all that interesting, nor can the big-fish-in-a-small-pond social circle of the Sampsons hold a candle to the Chinese community that Shepard reduces to a single individual’s struggle to assimilate. The latter is handled in ways that might evoke in a modern reader’s mind Star Trek’s Data and his longings to be more human.

The narrative shift is a curious one given that Shepard is Chinese American and has previous writings that deal with the identity issues she sidesteps in The Celestials. She doesn’t deal with the Knights of St. Crispin very well, either, and they too are more interesting than Julia Sampson. My overall sense is that Shepard is a good researcher, a mediocre historian, and a writer whose sensibilities and style are better adapted for family memoirs and soapy romance than the grand sweeps of historical fiction. In short, she’s better with hamburger dishes. –Rob Weir


The Paris Wife: Portrait of a Not-Yet Artist

The Paris Wife (2011)
Paula McLain
Random House 9780345521316
* * * ½

Few novelists of the 20th century achieved the bigger-than-life reputation of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). There was, of course, a time in which Hemingway wasn’t Hemingway–just another guy dreaming of becoming a writer. Paula McLain takes us back to the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, that transitional period in which young men like Hemingway were trying to heal physical and psychological wounds suffered in World War One and suspected that part of the healing process involved society casting off dead cultural tissue. McLain shows the making of Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of his first wife, Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson.

We first meet Hadley and Ernest in Chicago, in 1920, where Hadley is visiting a former Bryn Mawr roommate. McLain’s young Hemingway is a man of ambition, but he’s also plagued by self-doubt and Hadley, eight years his senior and an accomplished pianist, is just the ego booster he needs. They marry in 1921 and soon relocate to Paris, because–hard though it may be to believe–one could live cheaply there. Thus, Paris became a Mecca for other up-and-coming writers as well, and was the perfect base from which hand-to-mouth young folks could borrow some money and explore the Continent. This is precisely what the Hemingways do, and it’s how Ernest gains his first fascination with Spanish bullfighting.

The Paris Wife reads like a non-stop party through the 1920s, with all of its excitement, promise, and amorality. We meet Sara and Gerald Murphy, who are fabulously rich and vacuous. They’re perfectly willing to bankroll their abusive artistic friends as long as the booze flows and the music never ends. We also meet Hemingway’s first muse, Gertrude Stein, and see within that friendship the seeds of Hemingway’s bombast and outbursts of misogyny. Along the way we meet other soon-to-be literary lions still in their cub phases: James Joyce, Erza Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos…. Stein notwithstanding, it’s a decidedly hyper-masculine world. Though Ernest seems genuinely smitten with Hadley, gathering gloom and doom mars their relationship. (Hemingway divorced Hadley in 1927; he would marry three more times.)

McLain’s novel is a fascinating portrait of a not-yet artist though oddly, her female protagonist, Hadley, is underdeveloped. I suppose we are to gather that patriarchy was a form of hubris for Jazz Age scribblers, but it’s often hard to see what, other than sex, these men saw in their companions. Hadley is supposed to be a concert-quality pianist, yet she’s tepid and passive throughout the book–a clueless victim. Journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife, comes across as little more than a husband-stealer and, if possible, Zelda Fitzgerald appears crazier than she probably was. One wonders what critics would have said of this book if a man had sketched these characters! Ditto McLain’s propensity to name drop or use clichés to advance thin plot lines.

The Paris Wife isn’t great literature, but it has its fascinations. McLain is much better at description and ambience than at dialogue or character development. The former are so sharply drawn that we can sweep away the blue tobacco haze and clinking booze glasses and mentally conjure old ways giving way to new. The Paris Wife is a breezy, non-taxing read–perfectly suitable for curling up by a winter fire, or saving for a July beach read. –Rob Weir