Monday, May 13, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


I’ve often wondered what it must be like for a writer to suddenly, unexpectedly, have a book explode into a best-seller and prize winner. Wonderful, no doubt, for the moment, but what about when s/he returns to the hard work of writing another book? We know in retrospect that it had a paralyzing effect on J.D. Salinger when Catcher in the Rye zoomed to fame, and the success of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man seems also to have had a similar effect on his subsequent writing. Elizabeth Strout cannot have expected her little book, Olive Kitteridge, to become a best seller, let alone win a Pulitzer, but her success has not led to anxious inactivity. Her 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, is a wonderful book told in the same straight-forward and simple way as her earlier works. 

Most of the novel is set in a small town in Maine, Shirley Falls, and is about people who live quite ordinary lives. Like the great short story writer, Alice Munro, Strout seems intent on showing her readers that what appear from the outside to be quite ordinary lives are, viewed from inside, and through the eyes of a compassionate and wise story-teller, quite extraordinary. 

As the title tells us, the story revolves around two boys-become-men, Jim and Bob, the Burgess boys. Jim has become both rich and famous, first as a small-town prosecuting attorney, then as a defense attorney who takes on the case of a famous rock star accused of murder, and finally as a member of a prestigious New York law firm that specializes, in Jim’s words, in white-collar crime. Bob, the younger brother, is a legal aid attorney who lives in the shadow of Jim’s fame, idolizing his older brother, but verbally and emotionally abused and belittled by him. Of the three Burgess children, only Bob’s twin sister, Susan, has remained in Shirley Falls, and it is a thoughtless and silly act of her high-school aged son, Zach, that brings the Burgess boys back to Maine and to a confrontation with a tragic accident from their past that left them fatherless and mired in guilt.

To me, what shines forth in this novel is Strout’s compassion and moral insight, not only in her understanding of the Burgess children and the past that unites them, but her understanding of how small towns in America have suffered from economic downturns and the flight of young people from such towns to the big cities. Add to this flight a rather sudden influx of displaced people from a different culture, and the story begins to take shape.

The displaced people in this case are Somalis, driven out of their own country by wars, and then escaped from camps that are as or more dangerous than the country they have fled, and finally to this (and other) small American towns where they huddle together for safety. The reader can hear Strout wondering about how odd and frightening it must be for people who, for the most part, don’t speak the language, whose dress and diet and lifestyle are radically different than those of the people they are quite suddenly thrown into daily contact with. Difficult, certainly for the immigrants, but difficult also for the townspeople who find these strangers in their midst, who both desire and shun assimilation. 

The silly and senseless act that forces a kind of showdown in this little Maine town is Zach’s prank of throwing a frozen pig’s head into the makeshift Mosque the Somali’s use for community prayer. Zach is so ignorant of the ways and culture of the Somalis that have flooded his little town that he doesn’t even understand significance for them of the pig’s head. Why did he choose a pig’s head? Because, he explains to his attorney uncles, there were no cow or sheep heads at the slaughterhouse where his friend works and from which he stole the head. He had meant at first to use the head in a Halloween prank, but various complications have led to an alternative act that, quite apart from his intentions, have sinister implications and draw national, even international scrutiny and serious charges of a hate-crime.

Although the plot could have been treated in sensational ways, and in other hands, the novel could have been layered with mystery and violence, I was not surprised that Strout reins in the sensationalism. She is what I call a quiet writer, concerned less with outward action and mystery than in the internal monologues of her characters. And she talks not only through the Burgess boys; she also gives us inside views from Helen, Jim’s wife, from Pam, Bob’s ex-wife, Susan, the little sister, and for brief snatches even the inner lives of some of the Somali characters. Like Olive Kitteridge, which is really a series of short stories that are tied together by an appearance of Olive in each story, this novel, too, reads like a series of stories. And it seems that each story could have been a novel in its own right. 

The violence in the story is really limited to the verbal attacks and abusive language of Jim, usually directed towards his adoring younger brother, or his abandoned little sister, or his unfortunate and na├»ve nephew. It is obvious that Strout has known men like Jim, and even her treatment of him is, in the end, compassionate; she wants her reader to understand his excesses, and provides mitigating if not exculpating circumstances for his temper flairs. 

Although this novel has already gotten a lot of press and has been named one of the best books of the year by prestigious journals, I can’t say that I would rank it with her Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteridge. She seems intent on finding and showing some level of development for each of her characters, some form of enlightenment or redemption. For me, this results in a kind of sentimental summing up, a packaging in the end that is a bit too neat, too sweet. That said, I am certainly glad to have read it, and I eagerly await any other offerings she has for us. She is a superb story-teller and a deeply insightful social commentator. There is a goodness and sincerity that literally shines through her work, and there are few who can match her word-weaving skills.