After “Amy and Isabelle,” “Abide with Me” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” no one should be surprised by the poignancy and emotional vigor of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. But the broad social and political range of “The Burgess Boys” shows just how impressively this extraordinary writer continues to develop. In these pages, Strout untangles a moldy knot of filial tensions in one family while tracing the prejudices that continue to reverberate through American culture since Sept. 11.
The action revolves around three adult siblings and how their lives are transformed by a crisis that pushes them into the glare of public attention. Jim Burgess, the eldest, is a hotshot Manhattan lawyer, made famous years earlier by his dazzling defense of a singer accused (and clearly guilty) of having his girlfriend killed. A master of the universe, “the father everyone wanted,” Jim moves under a halo of expertise. People expect him to run for governor. Several magazines once named him among the Sexiest Men of the Year.
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.
She’s particularly adept at subverting our prejudices, complicating our easy judgments of people we think we know. Jim’s wife, for instance, is a wealthy Manhattanite whose days would seem to involve nothing more strenuous than managing the household staff and selecting the right theater tickets. But in Strout’s humane portrayal, we come to appreciate the real loneliness of this brittle woman who has stood by her obnoxious husband for decades, raised their children and sent them off into the world, leaving herself “in a velvet coffin,” with nothing to do but maintain her shiny facade against the onset of irritability and pettiness.
And Strout unpacks our racial stereotypes, too, filling in the full spectrum of expectations and misunderstandings that are so often obscured in the brash primary colors of the news: violent racists on one side, sophisticated liberals on the other. Afraid of these aloof, strangely dressed Africans and ashamed for feeling that way, Susan is a particularly fraught character to present in our enlightened times, but Strout never makes her a figure of ridicule or satire. Even Susan’s fragile son, the young vandal who desecrates the mosque on a foolish whim, enjoys the benefit of the author’s tender understanding. It’s not that she creates a world without hatred or cruelty — and she certainly doesn’t exonerate everyone — but she forces us to acknowledge that blame and judgment should be apportioned with care and reluctance.
That’s particularly true when it comes to Bob, with his “loping easiness,” and his renowned brother, who’s so hard, so unrelentingly critical. Why can’t Bob see that Jim is a bully? Why can’t he separate himself from this older sibling who offers him only ridicule? Strout has such a sensitive touch for the habits of affection and the sinews of trauma that pull and contort our minds over decades. And she’s just as attuned to the crosscurrents of sibling dynamics — the verbal abuse that’s so easily dealt out and sloughed off between brothers who love each other. When Bob thinks, “He had no memory of life without Jim being the brightness of its center,” we get a sense of just how profound this connection is.
As she showed in “Olive Kitteridge,” Strout is something of a connoisseur of emotional cruelty. But does anyone capture middle age quite as tenderly? Those latent fears — of change, of not changing, of being alone, of being stuck forever with the same person. There seems no limit to her sympathy, her ability to express, without the acrid tone of irony, our selfish, needy anxieties that only family can aggravate — and quell.
Charles is fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE BURGESS BOYS
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House. 320 pp. $26