Elizabeth Strout’s first two books, “Abide with Me’’ and “Amy and Isabelle,’’ were highly thought of, and her third, “Olive Kitteridge,’’ won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But “The Burgess Boys,’’ her most recent novel, is her best yet. Which is not to say it’s her most perfect book; in fact, in some ways, it’s a mess. But most great novels are messy, and in any case, the novel’s messiness is perfectly suited to the mess the novel’s characters have made of themselves, and of each other.
For the Burgess children (Bob, Jim, and Susan) of Shirley Falls, Maine, the mess begins with Shirley Falls itself. Shirley Falls is a small manufacturing town that has been bleeding jobs, and residents, for decades. By the novel’s opening, Bob and Jim have left, long ago, to become lawyers in New York City (Jim as a defender of celebrities and Bob for Legal Aid). When he was a child, Bob killed their father in a freak automobile accident. This tragedy has done much to shape the siblings’ characters, particularly Bob’s and Jim’s: Jim is the more dominant, more successful of the two, whereas “Bob’s weariness seemed like a large wet coat he was wearing.”
It’s no surprise, then, that most of the novel’s almost uniformly excellent prose is devoted to Bob, a passive, almost-alcoholic controlled by his brother who always knows how to bring out his “ancient inner Bobness.” But Strout does a remarkable job of making Bob seem heroic, inasmuch as a hero is someone who would rather someone else be one. For instance, after Bob is called home to Shirley Falls to attempt to save the day (more on that in a moment), his sister, Susan, who never left the town, says, “I miss Jim. No offense,” and Bob responds, “I’d prefer it myself, if he were here.”
Then again, the reader can’t really blame Bob for his reticence, because in this novel pretty much everyone needs saving, especially Susan’s teenage son, Zach, who has “thrown a frozen pig’s head through the front door of a mosque. During prayer. During Ramadan.’’ (Shirley Falls resembles many of its real-life Maine counterparts and their large number of recent African immigrants, in this case Somalis.)
This act sparks the novel’s main action, and Strout does a fine job of showing the tension between the white Christian Mainers and non-white Muslim newcomers without making either group too good or evil. But Zach is a major accomplishment. Zach is a cipher: No one understands him, not his uncles, not his mother, not the reader.
But he is not a psychopath; he is not racist; he is not even anti-Muslim. He is not anyone, other than a lost kid from Shirley Falls who commits a hate crime for reasons that don’t seem to have to do with hate and have everything to do with how confusing and nullifying it can be to grow up in a place that has seen better days, in a place that tries to go on living even though it kind of resents the new people who might yet revive it. This is not Strout’s attempt to excuse Zach’s actions — the novel makes clear that they’re reprehensible — but rather to show how a place makes, and unmakes, its people.
Anyway, that’s the major plot point: Zach does what he does, and the community struggles to understand what it means for Shirley Falls, and the authorities struggle to bring hate-crime charges against Zach, and then Jim joins Bob in Shirley Falls, and they struggle to defend their nephew against those charges, and then Jim has struggles that distract him from these other struggles.
I don’t mean to be dismissive of the plot: The novel has big things — race, religion, class, place — on its mind, and treats them seriously and swiftly. But the main reason “The Burgess Boys’’ is a great novel is the way its characters think and speak.
I particularly love Bob and Susan’s arguments, which say perhaps more about race and region than does the larger, more attention-grabbing plot. When Bob starts opining about Maine’s infrastructure, for instance, Susan says, “Bob. I don’t care. Frankly. About your observations on Maine.”
And later, when Susan explains Zach’s troubles Bob responds by saying, “Oy,” and then they have this conversation:
“ ‘Could you not say “Oy’’?’ Susan asked angrily. ‘Why do you say that?’
“ ‘Because for twenty years I’ve worked for Legal Aid, Susan, and lots of Jewish people work for Legal Aid, and they say “Oy” and now I say “Oy.” ’
“ ‘Well, it sounds affected. You’re not Jewish, Bob. You’re as white as they come.’
“ ‘I know that,’ Bob agreed.”
And this is what the novel is really about: people who believe they know who they are and then are disabused of that belief.
Strout’s pursuit of this theme contributes somewhat to the mess, but this is part of this novel’s success: Life is messy, and inevitably, in doing justice to that messiness, the novel ends up replicating it. And in order to forgive or ignore the messiness, the novel must give us something that life does not. Strout’s “The Burgess Boys’’ gives us plenty.