THE BURGESS BOYS
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, $26, 320 pages
As she did in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout begins her new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” with the ordinary: a small, fictitious town in Maine struggling with unemployment and an ordinary family with problems facing most people. Yet, there is nothing ordinary about “The Burgess Boys,” and the reader is quickly mesmerized by Miss Strout’s rich exposition of what seems a simple story but is, in fact, a poignant look at family relationships and secrets, guilt, sibling rivalry, marriage, political correctness and the burdens of immigration imposed on both immigrants and locals. Depression and a dying town are contrasted with descriptions of natural beauty.
The Burgess boys, Jim and his younger brother Bob, grew up in a yellow house on a hill in Shirley Falls, Maine. An accident killed their father when Bob was four years old, an accident for which Bob was held responsible and for which he was consumed with guilt his entire life. The accident was never mentioned in the family, a secret haunting all of them.
The boys left Shirley Falls for New York City, while Bob’s twin, Susan, stayed behind. Jim became a highly successful, self-satisfied trial lawyer, married to Helen, a rich, snobbish woman, and father to now-grown children. He never failed to belittle Bob, who was unambitious, childless and divorced from Pam with whom he retained a close friendship. Bob, who went about life encumbered by “the crust of doubt,” could not deal with public defender courtroom stress and moved on to writing appellate briefs.
Susan married and had a son, Zach (“so skinny and dark-eyed, such a sad sweet child he had been”). Now divorced and depressed, “she roamed the land of the unspeakably lonely whose presence society could not abide.” She feels unloved and is prone to fits of anger. Her house is always cold, and her meals consist of frozen lasagna or macaroni and cheese. Like her twin, Susan respects and admires Jim.
The plot is set in motion when teen-aged Zach mindlessly throws a half-frozen pig’s head into the local mosque used by Shirley Falls’ Somali Muslim immigrant population, a group looked upon with fear and hostility by the locals. The incident, which makes the national news, changes everything: a pro-Somali march is held, and Zach is arrested and charged with a misdemeanor and then with a hate crime driven by the political ambition of the prosecutor.
The brothers return to Shirley Falls, Jim to try to influence the local prosecutors to drop the charges, and Bob to comfort Zach and Susan. They do not succeed.
Shirley Falls is no longer what it was when the Burgess boys were growing up. With its boarded up stores and forlorn streets, it creates in Bob “the unfurling of an ache so poignant it was almost erotic, this longing, the inner silent gasp as though in the face of something unutterably beautiful, the desire to put his head down on the big loose lap of this town, Shirley Falls.”
Zach, terrified at what is about to happen, runs away to Sweden to stay with his father. He is saved in part by the kindness of the Somali cafe owner, Abdikarim, who sees in Zach’s frightened eyes the memory of his own dead son. Abdikarim has his own demons to face. He is grateful for the asylum offered by drab, gray Shirley Falls, but misses “the colorfulness of the Al Barakaat open market, the brilliance of the silks and colorful guntiino robes, the smells of ginger root and garlic and cumin seed.”
Abdikarim feels deep humiliation when “women gaze right at him as they walked by, to have children tugging on the hand of their parent, turning their small heads to stare when they were safely past, to have the thick-armed, tattooed men screech their trucks past his cafe, high school girls whisper and giggle and cross the street to yell a name. None of these things bothered Abdikarim so much as the memory of the policemen’s laughter … when they spotted the pig’s head on the rug.”
As the noose begins to tighten around Zach, the lives of his family begin to unravel. Faced with the shock of unfolding events, each of the characters moves into a new direction and a new life. Lies are cast aside with unforeseen consequences; reality and the past are faced. As Jim says, “Nothing’s a long time ago.”
Miss Strout guides her readers through the action with delicate subtlety and forceful writing. She has a gift for straightforward storytelling and original turns of phrase, coupled with insight into the human heart and psyche. Her portraits of depressed Shirley Falls and vibrant New York City are rich and colorful. One cannot put “The Burgess Boys” down as Miss Strout lets her story dominos fall into place.
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.