New Maine Times Book Review: The Burgess Boys

Posted Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: The Burgess Boys
By Elizabeth Strout.
Random House, 2013.
320 pages, $26.00.
ISBN 978-1-4000-6768-8.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
    Famous playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw once wrote:  “When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them.”  Well, George never met the Burgess clan.  When the Burgess boys and their long-suffering sister get together, they are just the opposite, deliberately picking at each other’s faults, and enjoying it far too much.
    THE BURGESS BOYS is Maine author Elizabeth Strout’s fourth work of fiction, following her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, in 2009.  As a best-selling author Strout has a solid and well-deserved reputation as a powerful and evocative storyteller, best known for her vivid portrayals of people behaving badly in emotional and painful family situations.
    The Burgess boys are Jim and Bob, both New York City lawyers.  Jim is a high-priced, smarmy, arrogant defense attorney in love with his wealth and celebrity status, never missing a chance to insult and embarrass his younger brother Bob.  Bob is a laid-back, under-achieving Legal Aid attorney who drinks too much and suffers under the heavy weight of a family tragedy years ago.  And despite Jim’s constant abuse, Bob idolizes his older brother.
    The brothers are from Shirley Falls, Maine, and are very glad to be away from that poor, shabby river town and its bad memories.  Their sister, Susan, who they haven’t seen in years, still lives there, a divorced, single mother living in a run-down house with her teenage son, Zach.
    When Zach is arrested for a hate crime and a civil rights violation, throwing a pig’s head into a Somali Muslim mosque (think Lewiston in 2006), Susan calls her brothers in a panic, and the two lawyers reluctantly return to Maine, each wondering how they can get out of this mess.  The uncomfortable reunion of the three siblings is not at all pleasant, certainly not family fun, as guilt, bitterness, and petty rivalries resurface and old wounds re-open.
    Zach is in real trouble, but Bob does not know what to do, Jim is only worried how this incident will affect his reputation, and Susan weeps and wrings her hands in self-pity.  Selfish, bad decisions do not help Zach, and in fact, just make things worse as media-driven hysteria and self-serving civil rights advocates stir up public outrage and sympathy.
    While local, state, and federal lawyers fight each other in court, and young Zach is truly is scared by what he has done, the Burgess boys and their sister bicker over past and present arguments and actions.  Bob and Susan are filled with self-doubt about their own failed marriages, and Jim is drowning in guilt over dark secrets he’s kept hidden, one for fifty years, the other much more recent.  Jim even admits:  “Some of us are secretly in love with destruction.”  And Zach turns out to be much more resilient, sound, and decisive that anyone expected.
    Strout’s characters have much to regret in their lives, even Mrs. Drinkwater, the savvy old lady who rents a room in Susan’s house.  Fortunately, as the story unfolds at least several characters show signs of redemption and reconciliation, even a chance for future happiness.  Others seem doomed to crumble under their own false image.  And one character shows remarkable courage and graceful mercy, redeeming qualities the Burgess boys don’t possess.
    Best, however, is Strout’s sensitive and compassionate portrayal of a Maine town trying to understand and deal with the struggles of an immigrant Somali community, revealing just how white Mainers and immigrant Somalis see each other through different lenses of life, a view that is both understandably clear and blurry at the same time.
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