He’s adored by his younger brother, Bob, a far less ambitious New York lawyer, who lives alone in a run-down apartment, divorced, a borderline alcoholic, blessed (or burdened) with an affectionate sensitivity to all. After work, “Everyone on the train seemed innocent and dear to him,” Strout writes. “He was moved by the singularity and mystery of each person he saw.” Is that a kind of spiritual sense, or is he just a sap? We can’t be sure, but what’s obvious is that his needy, stoop-shouldered personality has been shaped by the accident that killed their father when he was 4.
And finally, there’s Jim and Bob’s sister, Susan, whose exclusion from the title, “The Burgess Boys,” is a fair reflection of her sad, sidelined life. Unattractive, unsuccessful and, frankly, unpleasant, she’s the only one of the family to have remained in Shirley Falls, Maine. It’s a poor town sickened by rising unemployment and frightened by an influx of Somali immigrants whom the old Mainers don’t trust or understand.
Having set up this triangle of unequal siblings, Strout immediately places them under stress that will reshape their long-settled relationships to one another. Jim and Bob get a panicked call from their sister: Her weird teenage son, their nephew, has been arrested for throwing a frozen pig’s head into a mosque. The FBI might charge the boy with a hate crime. The national media are already whipping up the story, which is ready-made for TV: Racist Hoodlum Terrorizes Black Refugees. A tolerance rally is planned, with a white-supremacist counter-march. Bob drives up to help, but only makes a hash of it. Fortunately, the great Jim Burgess can pull a few strings, call in some favors. So what if he subjects his brother to withering verbal abuse?
Strout spreads her arms wide in this relatively trim novel. The action moves knowingly between the rich diversity of New York and the racial bifurcation of Shirley Falls. And a number of tangential characters, from the sheriff to Bob’s ex-wife to members of the Somali community, briefly take center stage. It’s easy to imagine a different kind of novelist spinning out twice as many pages on this intricate plot, following every side street, pursuing the life of every participant. Indeed, some readers of “The Burgess Boys” will feel that too many characters are stiffed with walk-on parts, particularly the Somalis, who tempt us with more depth than the novel seems willing to deliver. But Strout often offers the kind of psychological precision and subtle detail that can effectively substitute for more exhaustive treatment.