The ludicrous act that triggers the plot of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys is so extraordinary that some readers will question its plausibility. The Burgess brothers, both in their 50s are New York lawyers. Jim the older lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Helen, and only six blocks away lives Bob, a divorcee, who lives alone. There is another sibling who lives in Shirley Falls, the small Maine town in which the three were raised. Susan is Bob’s twin and also divorced. She lives with her son Zach, a 19-year-old, friendless misfit who works at Walmart and barely speaks to his mother – or to any one else, for that matter.
Shirley Falls is a depressed former mill town that has gradually become inundated with Somali refugees. (Out of ignorance some local residents call them “Somalians.”) To say the least, pranks were uncharacteristic of Zach, but one night he rolls a frozen pig head into the Somali mosque while they are at prayer. He is apprehended by police and his frantic mother phones her brothers in New York for legal help, and familial support as well.
Credible or not the pig’s head caper brings the three Burgess siblings together in new ways, and it is the rendering of their shifting relationships that is one of the novel’s prime achievements. Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2009 for her novel, Olive Kitteridge, writes with authority about Maine and about the intricacies of the law. She is married to a former Maine Attorney General and has herself studied law.
Jim is a high-profile defense attorney at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious firms. As a young Maine County Attorney he successfully defended an O.J. Simpson-type client, and since that time has loved the limelight. As we might expect Jim’s life is one of luxury. His perfect Brooklyn brownstone houses his ostensibly perfect wife, Helen, and three college-age children. Helen has family money, but is steadfastly loyal to Jim who makes life decisions for both of them. It is whispered in New York social circles that Jim owns more clothes than his wife. From the outset of the novel we dislike Jim, not only for his inflated ego, but because he routinely belittles his younger brother Bob, calling him “knucklehead” and “slob-dog.”
Yet Bob worships Jim to a degree that is pathological. In contrast to Jim, Bob wins our affection. A kind, large, gray-haired man, Bob listens to everyone. Affable and witty, he is sensitive to his surroundings, relishing both the Maine countryside and his subway commutes from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Politically he is a progressive, and he works tirelessly for his clients at the Legal Aid society. Strout brilliantly captures an existential dread emanating from Bob.
Amazingly, his twin, Susan, dislikes him. She is an unhappy, blunt and sarcastic woman with absolutely no joie de vivre. Her sparsely furnished, unheated house reflects her state in life. Perhaps because she seldom leaves the confines of Shirley Falls, her horizons are narrow. In the course of the novel she travels to New York for the first time and finds it frightening and appalling.
In addition to the plot that centers on Zach and his legal problems, the novel contains a secondary twist. When they were very young the Burgess children lost their father in a freak accident, and Bob has always believed that it was his fault, though he was only three at the time. Skillfully Strout keeps readers curious about the tragedy.
In strong fiction the action of the plot transforms the characters just as in life we are changed by forces outside our control. By the novel’s conclusion, each of the Burgess threesome is irrevocably reshaped.