In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a famous essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he sounds like an interior decorator. I say that because in the essay, Poe insists that all good writing must strive for what he calls “unity of effect.” For Poe, it was important that everything in his short stories — characters, setting, narration — add up to one big “color-me-terrified” impact.
I kept thinking of Poe’s matchy-matchy theory of writing as I was reading Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, The Burgess Boys. I bet Poe would’ve preferred Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge, given that it’s a collection of interlocking short stories, and Poe always had a thing for short poems and stories over novels. The Burgess Boys is not only a novel — it’s a big, floppy, shambling jumble sale of a novel. I mostly loved it because it feels like life: Color it chaotic.
The Burgess boys grew up in Strout’s trademark territory of rural Maine — this dying hometown burg is called Shirley Falls — but as adults they’ve escaped to New York. Jim is a famous corporate lawyer who has always belittled his younger brother, Bob, also a lawyer but a less prosperous one for Legal Aid. Jim calls Bob “slob-dog,” but his fraternal teasing has a nasty edge to it, historically speaking: As little boys, the two were left alone with their sister in the family car parked at the top of a hill; Bob accidentally switched gears into drive and the car rolled, killing their father, who was bending over in front of it. Growing up in Shirley Falls, Bob was known as “the one who killed his father”; and well into middle age now, he seems to still be atoning for that original sin.
The plot gets going with a surprise phone call from the Burgess boys’ sister, Susan, the sibling who stayed behind in Maine. She’s divorced, works in an eyeglass store and lives in a dilapidated house that she barely can afford to heat in winter. Susan breaks the news that her teenage son, Zach, is being arrested and charged with a hate crime. It turns out Shirley Falls has become a resettlement area for Somali refugees, and Zach was caught rolling a frozen, bloody pig’s head through the door of a storefront mosque. The “Somalians,” as Susan and many of the other townspeople call them, are especially outraged because this violation occurred during Ramadan. Zach, a lonely boy who seems scared of his own shadow, says he doesn’t even know what Ramadan is.
In the days and months that follow, Jim and Bob, separately and together, return again and again to Shirley Falls to try to straighten out this mess. Along the way, our sense of who these two men are expands and changes. Strout’s roving narrator also takes us into their sister Susan’s narrow world and into the traumatized lives of some of the Somali refugees.
This is an ambitious novel that wants to train its gaze on the flotsam and jetsam of thought, as well as on big-issue topics like the politics of immigration and the possibility of second chances. The Burgess Boys can be overly sentimental sometimes and too contrived, but Strout can really nail things in her precise but unprissy language. At one point, Susan, who’s not adept at expressing herself, thinks about all the things that have gone wrong in her life and the things she’d like to change. Our omniscient narrator, speaking for Susan, starkly says: “[I]t was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.”
The most resonant parts of The Burgess Boys, however, are the long, sprawling sections that delve into the family dynamics, especially the damaged, delusional yet still essential relationship between Jim and Bob. It’s because this novel is messy and wrinkled and digressive that it ultimately rings true. Don’t look for “unity of effect” in The Burgess Boys; rather, savor the authenticity of imperfection.