'The Burgess Boys': Elizabeth Strout's family tale
All families, happy or not, are crazy in their own way. This paraphrase of Tolstoy underscores the essential oddness, call it craziness if you will, that characterizes every human life.
Elizabeth Strout's splendid new novel, "The Burgess Boys," shows she is a connoisseur of such wisdom. As Bob Burgess says, with a wink, to his brother Jim: "You have family.... You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane."
Though raised in Maine -- the setting for such beautifully realized Strout books as "Olive Kitteridge" -- the brothers have lived for years in Park Slope, Brooklyn, while their sister, Susan, has never strayed from their hometown of Shirley Falls. But Bob and Jim rush back when Susan's 19-year-old son, Zach, is charged with a hate crime. He has thrown a pig's head into a mosque during Ramadan, making the Somali refugees who worship there feel even more like unwanted, misunderstood outsiders.
Jim is the family star, the handsome hunk of a defense attorney once famous for getting a soul singer acquitted in the murder of his wife. Since then, he's traded in his celebrity for a lucrative corporate law practice in New York. Bob, who toils for little pay at Legal Aid, has borne a terrible burden since childhood, when he was responsible, he believes, for the accidental death of their father.
At some level a Sad Sack -- his apartment is undergrad messy, his love life nonexistent -- Bob remains the novel's saintly, radiant center, like Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov in "War and Peace." "To be with Bob," writes Strout, "made people feel as if they were inside a small circle of us-ness." Even his ex-wife is grateful to be able to confide in him. Jim, on the other hand, feels compelled at every turn to taunt his brother as a loser. That Bob bears this calumny testifies to the sadomasochistic nature of their bond.
It's surprising to learn that Bob and Susan are twins. Her outlook is so harsh and unforgiving that she seems his "evil twin." Eventually, we understand that she's simply inherited her mother's bitterness. She, in turn, seems to have passed that on to her friendless son, whose divorced father has fled to Sweden.
It sounds bleak, but the novel continually punches the refresh button to open up more possibilities in its characters. Strout's vigorous storytelling -- propelled by the suspense of a trial -- keeps us turning pages, but it's the subtly flawed characters that make us love the book.
Bob can't see himself clearly, but neither can anyone else, except the woman who will become his second wife. Here's his first, who has since married up and into Park Avenue circles: "It was always nice to see Bobby, who was so uncool as to inhabit ... his own private condominium of coolness." Margaret Estaver, an unpretentious Unitarian minister in Shirley Falls, is less condescending. She senses in him a gentle soul worthy of her love.
Once this lost soul manages to untangle himself from his narcissistic brother, he's astonished to realize that "he had no memory of life without Jim being the brightness of its center." This insight is the catalyst for a new life.
As the novel opens, a woman tells the narrator that "nobody ever knows anyone." Obviously, she hasn't met Elizabeth Strout. Despite a too-pat conclusion, "The Burgess Boys" is a moving character study within a finely spun tale of a family stuck in old ruts and an America adapting to new challenges.