With a Pulitzer Prize comes the heavy weight of expectations for the winner’s next work. That’s especially so for Elizabeth Strout, whose 2008 novel, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, was both a critical and a commercial success. Unfortunately, THE BURGESS BOYS, Strout’s fourth novel, is an awkward amalgam of a generic family melodrama and an account of the aftermath of an act of anti-immigrant violence that doesn’t succeed in bringing either narrative strand to life.
The incident that gets the novel off to a promising start is based on a real event that occurred in Lewiston, Maine, in 2006, when a man threw a frozen pig’s head through the glass door of a Somali mosque during the month of Ramadan. In THE BURGESS BOYS, that act is committed by 19-year-old Zachary Olson, of the small Maine town of Shirley Falls, the setting of Strout’s AMY AND ISABELLE. Zach, more aimless than bigoted, is the son of Susan Olson, whose brothers, Jim and Bob, the “Burgess Boys” of the novel’s title (both lawyers) return to their hometown to help their nephew out of his legal predicament.
Though they share a profession, Jim, the elder, and Bob, four years his junior and Susan’s twin, couldn’t be more different. After winning a high-profile murder case, Jim works in a large Manhattan law firm, while Bob has given up trial practice for the less stressful and far less lucrative life writing appellate briefs for Legal Aid Society. As they, along with Susan, are drawn back into the web of family, old tensions emerge.
"Strout does succeed, at times, in capturing the pace and quality of life in idiosyncratic, small-town Maine, and her snapshots of the changing seasons are precise and vivid."
The Burgess family’s crisis is rooted in an incident that occurred when four-year-old Bob released the brakes on the family car and killed his father. Bob and Jim, now in their 50s, have settled into a seemingly permanent relationship of inferior to superior, as Bob acknowledges he “has no memory of life without Jim being the brightness of its center.” When the circumstances of the childhood incident are fully revealed about two-thirds of the way through the novel, the scene is portrayed unconvincingly, and that lack of credibility extends to Strout’s depiction of all the characters’ relationships. Bob’s marriage failed when it became clear he was responsible for his wife’s inability to conceive, though he and his ex-wife somehow remain best friends. Jim and his wife Helen are engaged in something that’s more business partnership than marriage, and it’s not surprising when his conventional mid-life crisis rocks its foundations. These characters aren’t depicted with sufficient complexity or depth to engage either our minds or our hearts.
Even Strout’s character descriptions are painted in pallid colors. Zach, employed at Walmart, is “tall, skinny, blank-faced with fear.” Bob, who’s a “tall man, fifty-one years old,” is a “likeable fellow.” Jim, “tall, very trim,” and whose emotions only range from irritation to anger, derisively refers to his younger brother as “slob-dog.” Susan obsesses fitfully over her inadequacies as a parent, which seem apparent only to her, while Helen lacks any insight into her husband’s character, even after decades of marriage. Abdikarim Ahmed, who owns a café in Shirley Falls, is the only significant character from the Somali community, and while his agony over the breakup of his family after they emigrate to the United States feels genuine, he’s too small a presence in the story to matter much.
Apart from the weakness of its characters, the plot’s momentum flags as the investigation into Zach’s crime proceeds. Despite the shocking nature of the act, the young man is never charged with anything more serious than a misdemeanor. Jim’s clumsy attempt to derail a potential civil rights action from the Maine Attorney General’s office backfires, and his nephew faces a hearing in that case where he testifies, improbably, even before he’s brought to trial on the criminal charge. These legal proceedings create surprisingly little dramatic tension. Except for a rally where Jim speaks and that’s described only in passing, the fallout from the event --- either among the natives or in the large community of Somali refugees --- barely rises above the level of a murmur.
Strout does succeed, at times, in capturing the pace and quality of life in idiosyncratic, small-town Maine, and her snapshots of the changing seasons are precise and vivid. Still, one can’t escape the feeling of disappointment that accompanies a capable writer’s failure to explore all the possibilities of a rich premise. The well-deserved following Strout has attracted from her previous work can only hope for better next time out.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 29, 2013
The Burgess Boys