How often does the family car really kill one of its regular passengers? It’s a recurring trope in literary fiction — the parent’s moment of inattention that changes a household’s fate forever — but in Elizabeth’s Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys, her follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge, that accident is flipped on its head. Here, it’s the father who’s been killed, at the hand of a child lured by the tempting gearshift, and the lives of the children that are changed forever.
Jim, Susan and Bob Burgess are three siblings whose lives have taken very different paths since that tragedy. Jim, the eldest, is an F. Lee Bailey–like figure, a Harvard Law grad who’s made a name getting famous clients off. Bob is a less flashy public defender, living a quiet, post-divorce life in Brooklyn near Jim’s far grander digs. And single-mom Susan, Bob’s twin, has remained in their childhood home in the dying Shirley Falls, Maine, raising her teenage son, Zachary. When Zach inexplicably throws a bloody pig’s head through the door of a mosque, terrifying the town’s immigrant Somali community, Bob and Jim, absent uncles both, return home to do damage control.
Strout based The Burgess Boys on an actual case in Maine, and she uses it to explore intolerance of all kinds, from Bob snapping at Susan that it’s “Somali,” not “Somalian,” to the white supremacist sporting an “88” (that’s hh, for “Heil Hitler”) on his baseball cap. But it’s the question of home that consumes Strout, whether it’s making the trip from a refugee camp to settle halfway across the world or simply returning to your childhood home. The new and the old can be equally oppressive.
In the wake of their troubled childhood, only Jim, it seems, with his career and devoted wife, Helen, has triumphed. He’s the one family calls in a crisis. But, perhaps consequently, he’s also the family’s bully, whose ego needs endless feeding and whose brutish problem-solving is increasingly revealed to be exactly the opposite.
Jim is also the only one whose POV we never see. Strout favors what’s called the “third-person close,” in which the author resides in the character’s voice and impressions, granting what would be the first-person a slight remove. In the novel, we see events from Bob’s, Helen’s and Susan’s perspective, but Jim is an increasingly shadowy figure. As his lies and weaknesses come to the fore, he becomes the black hole of the plot, absorbing the family’s darkness as its members begin to sway out of his orbit. “I have no family,” he moans to his brother. “You have a wife who hates you,” Bob responds. “Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not such a drip now. That’s called family.”
Strout has never needed the clumsy apparatus of “story” to tell one — one can imagine her plumbing the frail and difficult depths of these friendships and marriages without anyone rolling a pig’s head through any door or, for that matter, a car over a father. Her deft touch comes through in more subtle betrayals: a glazed response from a supposed friend, the quiet manipulations of an ex-wife. When Susan visits New York, then comments that being a hick in the city has given her insight into how the “Somalians” might feel, that tells us more than all of Strout’s firsthand depictions of the community itself.
Olive Kitteridgewas a book that thrived on the perplexing tragedies of the absolutely ordinary, the invisible losses in a seemingly normal household and its ordinary, middle-class inhabitants. It might have been interesting to meet Susan, Bob and Jim with flaws that had no direct historical cause — the kind most of us have, after all. But if Strout’s novel is a little fitful, so is family itself, and her command of it has not wavered.