Throughout her earlier books, Elizabeth Strout was quite good at taking a nasty person and making you understand, even sympathize. In Strout’s Pultizer winner, Olive Kitteredge, the title character is a bit of a monster, but you can’t help but feel some warmth toward her as you read. It’s somewhat unusual to have a major novelist so fearlessly embrace unsympathetic characters.
There’s a new woman, similar to Kitteredge, in Strout’s upcoming (and often unsuccessful) novel, The Burgess Boys. Her name is Helen. She is selfish, small-minded. Her comfortable Park Slope life is invaded by an incident. Her sister-in-law’s son has desecrated a Somali-American mosque by tossing the head of a pig through the front door. Now, Helen’s brother-in-law, Bob, must return to Maine to help his sister, Susan, and Susan’s son, the perpetrator, Zach. Meanwhile, Helen takes a vacation, and her husband, Jim, does some golfing. Jim is a wildly successful attorney.
Long, long ago, one of the Burgess boys — Bob, not Jim — accidentally killed Papa Burgess. It was a freak accident, involving a car.
As the story unfolds, the Burgess family unravels. Helen begins to feel separated from Jim. Helen doesn’t sympathize when Jim screams that his brother is a fuck-up. Meanwhile, back in Maine, Bob is having problems. He has almost accidentally backed into a Somali émigré. A white person, a police officer, explains that Somali émigrés tend to overreact, and the car incident will not reflect well on the Burgess family.
When the government decides to bring harsh charges against Zach, the boy disappears. Has he committed suicide? What role must each of the adult Burgesses take in the search for Zach (or Zach’s body)?
Perhaps intentionally, Strout’s story recalls the Dharun Ravi case, in which Ravi committed a crime that may or may not have led to another person’s death. On 19 September 2010, Ravi used a webcam to videotape a homosexual assignation between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and a visitor — an act that may or may not have been a hate crime. Did Ravi deserve the punishment he received? What had he been thinking? And was Tyler Clementi’s death really a result of Ravi’s actions? Might he have been emotionally unstable before Ravi committed his reprehensible act?
It’s interesting to consider these questions, but Strout’s story is far less gripping than the real-world Ravi debacle. Zach remains a sketchy cartoon character throughout the novel; we are never given access to his thoughts, and Strout seems almost uninterested in the things that are happening in his heart. Also, the Somali victims of Zach’s crime never seem like real, living, breathing human beings. One Somali character, Abdikarim, is asked to carry the full weight of the Somali presence in this novel. Abdikarim’s portions of the plot are notably dry and generic.
Even worse, the ending feels implausible. There’s an attempt to put a happy spin on things. Why not allow the ending to be dark? A twist involving Helen seems designed to portray Helen in a positive light… but she has been so relentlessly silly for so long, the reader is likely to wish for her sudden death. It’s puzzling that Strout is rarely inclined to poke fun at this loathsome character.
Granted, Strout has strengths. In one of my favorite scenes, Susan is extraordinarily grateful to her tenant, Mrs. Drinkwater, who talks about her own experience with mothering. Mrs. Drinkwater had one daughter who just didn’t turn out the way anyone would want. Perhaps chance is to be blamed? Perhaps parents aren’t entirely responsible for the twists and turns in a child’s life? This passage is especially satisfying; it’s easy to envision these two women talking, and the content of the dialogue is surprising and absorbing.
It’s worth recalling that two of Strout’s excellent earlier works, Olive Kitteredge and Amy and Isabelle, focus on thorny connections between parents and children. Complex relationships fueled those books, and it seemed that peace might always elude the main characters’ grasp. Alas, The Burgess Boys lacks the richness of Olive Kitteredge and Amy Isabelle.
In this new novel, crucial moments are elided—moments that the reader needs to live through. Helen erupts at Bob and says some shocking things, but we don’t get to see this scene. Strout instead provides a rushed summary.
And here is my main objection.
It’s possible to split writers into two camps. One fashions characters entirely separate from the author’s own life and worldview. The author is a ventriloquist; he speaks for people who are not real, people invented from thin air. Raymond Carver does this. The other kind of writer is simply performing a monologue—using his own dazzling voice to describe his own idiosyncratic world. This type of writing is what you will find in an Edward St. Aubyn novel. St. Aubyn isn’t really inventing people from thin air; his characters tend to sound quite a bit like one another, and everything is described in one riotous voice. The good thing about St. Aubyn’s work is that St. Aubyn’s voice is outrageously entertaining. You don’t mind that everyone tends to sound the same, because the way everyone sounds is hilarious and unforgettable.
Strout seems to be a St. Aubyn-ish writer, but her voice isn’t nearly as funny or as compelling as St. Aubyn’s. The prose is unremarkable and competent—and not worth quoting.
You may think of Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage (Knopf, 2004) while reading The Burgess Boys. Like Strout, Tyler focuses on the members of one family. However, unlike Strout, Tyler is able to capture a sense of the mysteriousness of life. Tyler’s masterful novel ends without easy answers, and yet it still provides a full-throated resolution. On the other hand, in The Burgess Boys, Strut oversimplifies the world. She wants to argue for her own unique hypothesis about how life works—and yet the hypothesis seems inadequate. It doesn’t account for complexity as beautifully as Tyler’s writing does.
In any case, Strout’s new novel isn’t bad, but it’s unworthy of a Pulitzer winner. Strout must slow down and approach her work with new seriousness. She is capable of far more.