Nobody Ever Knows Anyone: Deception and Transformation in Elizabeth Strout’s ‘The Burgess Boys’
Winning an achievement award — be it in the arts or sports — can weigh like an albatross around the neck as the world awaits one’s next great feat. Many, succumbing to the pressure, fail to win the Booker Prize or the World Heavyweight Title a second time around, Hilary Mantel and Muhammad Ali notwithstanding.
It’s been four years since Elizabeth Strout’s absorbing novel, Olive Kitteridge, was anointed with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The novel is a series of short stories in which the vexatious yet endearing title character, Olive, tinkers with the lives of fellow villagers as they go about the task of surviving Maine’s rugged, insular landscape. With lucid prose, Strout portrays the community’s despair, loneliness and anger ebbing and flowing as gentle and vicious as the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its shoreline.
Strout’s brilliance as a storyteller is her ability to weave an intricate web of primary and secondary characters, whose quirks and foibles taunt you to love and hate them simultaneously. While events and relationships may appear obvious to the reader, her characters are often blinded by loyalty (Henry Kitteridge); tradition (Reverend Caskey in Abide with Me); and shame (Amy Goodrow in Amy and Isabelle), generating endless frustration as their stories, often a comingling of lies and truths, are vetted by the town gossips. If her novels made it to the big screen, you might be tempted to throw popcorn at times. In Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys, the reader is sure to find a character or two just as satisfying as Olive Kitteridge in their maddening behavior and questionable judgment.
The burdens of loyalty, tradition and shame ring loudly in The Burgess Boys. The family’s dynamics, as elastic and malleable as play dough, would give the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey a run for their money. Blood is thicker than water, as the old adage goes. And it is one carved on the forehead of every Burgess sibling, all of whom hold varying levels of disdain for their Puritan traditions. Their shame of the mundane to the profound is so strong that it’s even passed on to the family dog that acts “as if eating her dog food was something she should be beaten for.”
The lies that bind people to their destinies are a major theme in Strout’s new novel, but with a confounding twist. She forces us to question all that we read by employing an unreliable narrator, whose name we never learn and whose knowledge of the Burgess family is, admittedly, nothing more than a few babysitting sessions four decades earlier. When she tells her mother that she plans to write about the infamous family of Shirley Falls, Maine, she worries that people will think unkindly of her for writing about people she knows. Yawning, her mother responds, “Well, you don’t know them. Nobody ever knows anyone.”
This doesn’t bode well for the reader of a novel about lies. And there are many — the biggest of which has emotionally crippled the three Burgess siblings for most of their lives: the accidental death of their father, run over in the driveway with all three children, Jim, eight, and twins Bob and Susan, four, inside the family car. Like a thick New England fog, the tragedy shrouds the family for decades. Our narrator, like many of Strout’s earlier characters, sees idle gossip as a form of entertainment and, presumably, fodder for her story. The one responsible for the accident, she tells us, “had to see a doctor for mentals.” But there begins our nagging doubt: Can we trust her?
The thrust of the story, at times frenetic and other times languid, moves back and forth between the wealthy sophisticates of New York City and the browbeaten bumpkins of Shirley Falls. The Burgess brothers, like many children of Maine, have linked their futures to New York City, leaving the “strikingly unfeminine” Susan alone to weather Maine’s incessant gray cold, her debilitating divorce, and her peculiar son, Zach, who “doesn’t like to talk.” “Conventionally handsome” Jim, whose “eyes never smiled,” is a high-profile defense attorney; his national notoriety is on par with that of Johnnie Cochran. Bob is an attorney with Legal Aid and is described as having the “odd ability to fall feet first into the little pocket of someone else’s world” and prefers to eat child’s foods with no color like potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
As the siblings confront a family crisis involving a crime committed by Susan’s son, Zach, against the Shirley Falls’s Somali community, the social fabric of the town — never a community to welcome outsiders, be they French Canadian migrant workers, Somali refugees, or wealthy women from Connecticut — begins to unravel alongside the fabricated life stories holding the Burgess family together. In an era where red and blue in America aren’t just colors in a child’s Crayola box, Strout’s depictions veer dangerously close to the oversimplification of the differences in lifestyle, politics and intelligence between urbanites, country folk, and immigrants as heard on talk radio and cable news networks. But a master at her craft, she spins a richly layered tale ultimately painted in many shades of purple — an ode to humanity’s similarities, not differences.
Like Eudora Welty and Paul Auster, Strout creates locales with as strong a beating heart as their diverse inhabitants. A native of Portland, Maine, her previous novels, as well as her most recent, are rooted to Maine’s small coastal towns. In The Burgess Boys, however, she also tackles the City of Lights, where she has lived nearly half her life; the deeply satisfying result is a novel closely resembling part photographic essay, part child’s scratch n’ sniff.
With just a few words, Strout lures the reader onto the streets of Brooklyn with the sights, sounds and smells of urban living: there are “the Chinese restaurants, the card shops, the jewelry shops, the grocers with the fruits and vegetables and rows of cut flowers.” It is where women wear “their silver and gold necklaces down the fronts of their black dresses, standing in their wonderful well-fitting shoes” and the sidewalks overflow with “pedestrians who moved through the traffic-jammed crosswalks.”
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