It takes a family disaster to get Jim and Bob Burgess back to Maine. The only way anyone would go back to Shirley Falls, one character jokes in The Burgess Boys, is in shackles. In this case, the handcuffs are on their nephew.
Both men are lawyers, both live in Brooklyn, but, Elizabeth Strout makes clear in the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteredge," the brothers are polar opposites. Bob, who “wears his weariness like a coat,” is divorced and works for Legal Aid. Jim, meanwhile, who has a nasty streak, became famous for helping a famous singer escape a murder rap and landed on a few magazines' most beautiful people lists.
They grew up in Shirley Falls, a manufacturing town now almost completely scooped clean of jobs and economic progress. But while Jim was the golden boy who could have been governor, Bob grew up as the boy who killed his father in a freak accident.
The rural Maine setting is familiar, but this time there are no acerbic high school teachers or tightly constructed stories. I definitely felt the lack of the former, but there's nothing tightly constructed about the Burgess family. The novel grapples with questions of identity, place, race and it needs running room to let its characters sort themselves out.
The disaster arrives when their nephew, Zachary, throws “a frozen pig's head through the front door of a mosque. During prayer. During Ramadan,” as Jim succinctly sums up. Zachary claims not to know what Ramadan is, which Jim concedes is entirely possible, given that his mom, Susan, only learned about it from reading newspaper articles about her son's hate crime.
The FBI and the state attorney general's office are planning to go after Zach for civil rights violations and anything else they can think of, but Jim has a Caribbean vacation planned, so he deputizes Bob, who is almost crippled by empathy, to deflect the damage.
“It was his strong point ... his odd ability to fall feetfirst into the little pocket of someone else's world for those few seconds. It should have made him a good husband but apparently it hadn't...”
Back in Shirley Falls, with their unhappy and unpleasant sister, Susan, who screams at her son and can barely afford to heat her house, Bob tries to save the day. (If Bob were a cartoon hero, he would be Underdog – with lower self-esteem.)
Susan remarks that she wishes Jim had come to help. “No offense.”
Bob replies, “I'd prefer it myself, if he were here.”
The fallout from Zach's crime and what the Burgesses do afterwards make up the plot, but Strout takes her time, narrating from the viewpoints of both brothers, Susan, the Somali refugees Zach targeted, Jim's shallow wife, Helen, and Bob's ex-wife, Pam. Strout is especially deft in her handling of Zach, who could have been a cipher, and in her scenes penned from the viewpoint of a Somali store owner. But it will surprise no one who has ever read a novel that Jim is due for a comeuppance or that Bob has unsuspected depths.
The larger story becomes the question: What would happen to your identity, if you were to discover that the person you've always been told that you were, never actually existed?