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Thu March 21, 2013
First Reads

Exclusive First Read: 'The Burgess Boys,' By Elizabeth Strout

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 8:16 am

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Elizabeth Strout's newest book begins with crime. Zach, the youngest member of the Burgess family, throws a severed pig's head through the front door of a mosque in his quiet, rural Maine town. The mosque is run by a recently arrived community of Somali immigrants, who have already faced some hostility from the town. Everyone is shocked, but no one more so than Zach himself.

The rest of the book follows the family as it deals with the fallout of Zach's crime. His uncle Jim, a high-powered, New York lawyer, attempts to get the situation under control. His uncle Bob, also a lawyer in New York, tries to help. And his mother, Susan, just hopes to understand her son's impulses. What we're left with is a bleak, somber novel that explores the myriad ways that families can let each other down.

In this excerpt Bob has a drink with his ex-wife in a New York restaurant. The Burgess Boys will be published March 26.


ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.


1

The colors of Central Park were quietly fall-like: the grass a faded green and the red oaks bronzed, the lindens changing to gentle yellow, the sugar maples losing their orangey leaves, one floating here, another fall­ing there, but the sky was very blue and the air warm enough that the windows of the Boathouse were still open at this late afternoon hour, the striped awnings extending over the water. Pam Carlson, seated at the bar, gazed out at the few boats being rowed, everything slow- motion- seeming, even the bartenders, who worked with unhurried steadiness, washing glasses, shaking martinis, sliding their wet hands over their black aprons.

And then — like that — the place filled up. Through the door they came, businessmen shedding their jackets, women flipping back their hair, tourists moving forward with slightly stunned looks, the men hold­ing backpacks that carried a bottle of water in a netted pocket on the side, as though they had hiked a mountain all day, their wives holding a map, a camera, the conferring of their confusion.

"No, my husband's sitting there," Pam said when a German couple started to move the tall chair beside her. She put her handbag on the chair. "Sorry," she added. Years of living in New York had taught her many things: how to parallel park, for example, or intimidate a taxi driver who claimed to be off-duty, how to return merchandise that was suppos­edly nonreturnable, or to say without apology "This is the line" when someone tried to cut ahead at the post office. In fact, living in New York, Pam thought, poking through her bag for her cell phone to check the time, was a perfect example of what great generals had understood throughout history: that the person who cared the most won. "A Jack Daniel's on the rocks with lemon," she told the bartender, tapping the counter next to her untouched glass of wine. "For my husband. Thanks."

Bob was always late.

Her real husband would not be home for hours, and the boys were at soccer practice. None of them cared that she was meeting Bob. "Uncle Bob," her kids called him.

Pam had come straight from the hospital where she worked twice a week as an intake assessor, and she'd have liked to go and wash her hands now but if she got up the Germans would take her seat. Her friend Janice Bernstein — who had dropped out of medical school years ago — said Pam should wash her hands the minute she left work; hospi­tals were just petri dishes of bacteria, and Pam agreed completely. In spite of her frequent use of hand- sanitizing lotion (which dried the skin), the thought of this vast array of waiting germs made Pam very anxious. Janice said that Pam was very anxious about too many things, she really should try to control it, not just to be more comfortable but because her anxiety caused her to appear socially eager, and that was not cool. Pam replied that she was too old to worry about being cool, but in fact she did worry about it, and that's one reason it was always nice to see Bobby, who was so uncool as to inhabit — in Pam's mind — his own private condominium of coolness.

A pig's head. Jesus.

Pam shifted on her chair, sipped her wine. "Could you make that a double?" Pam asked, after studying the glass of whiskey set down. Bob

had sounded dismal on the telephone. The bartender took back the whiskey, returned to set it down again. "Start a tab, yes," said Pam.

Years ago — when she was married to Bob — Pam had worked as a re­search assistant to a parasitologist whose specialty was tropical diseases. Pam had spent her days in a lab looking through an electron microscope at the cells of Schistosoma, and because she loved facts the way an art­ist would love color, because she experienced a quiet thrill at the preci­sion science aimed for, she had loved the days she'd spent in that lab. When she heard on the television about the incident in Shirley Falls, saw the imam walking away from the storefront mosque on a downtown street that looked terribly deserted, all sorts of feelings flooded her, not the least being an almost out-of-body nostalgia for a town that had once been familiar to her, but also — and almost immediately — a concern for the Somalis. She'd right away looked into it: Yes, those refugees who came from the southern regions of Somalia had showed Schistosoma haematobium eggs in their urine, but the bigger problem was — not sur­prisingly to Pam — malaria, and before they were allowed to come to the United States they were given a single dose of sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine for malaria parasitemia, and also albendazole for intestinal parasite ther­apy. What concerned Pam more, though, was learning that the Somali Bantu — a darker- skinned group, apparently shunned in Somalia, having come there as slaves from Tanzania and Mozambique a couple of cen­turies before — showed a much higher rate of schistosomiasis and, ac­cording to what Pam had read from the International Organization for Migration, also serious mental health problems of trauma and depres­sion. The Somali Bantu, the Organization said, had certain supersti­tions: They might burn the skin of areas affected by disease, or pull out the baby teeth of a small child with diarrhea.

Part of what Pam felt when she read that was what she felt now re­membering it: I am living the wrong life. It was a thought that made no sense. It's true she missed the smells of a lab: acetone, paraffin, alcohol, formaldehyde. She missed the swoosh of a Bunsen burner, the glass slides and pipettes, the particular and deep concentration of those around her. But she had twin boys now — with white skin, perfect teeth, no burn marks anywhere — and lab work was a life of the past. Still, the variety of problems, parasitological and psychological, of this refugee population made Pam feel homesick for whatever life she was not hav­ing, a life that would not feel so oddly wrong.

These days life was her townhouse, her boys and their private school, her husband, Ted, who ran the New Jersey office of a large pharmaceu­tical company and so had a reverse commute, her part- time job at the hospital, and a social life that required seemingly endless deliveries from the dry cleaners. But Pam was often homesick. For what? She could not have said, and it made her ashamed. Pam drank more wine, looked behind her, and there stepping through the foyer of the Boat­house bar was dear Bob, like a big St. Bernard dog. He could have been wearing a wooden cask of whiskey around his neck, ready to paw through the autumn leaves to get someone out. Oh, Bobby!

"You would think," she confided, nodding toward the Germans, who had only now stopped hovering nearby, "that after starting two world wars they wouldn't be so pushy."

"That's the dumbest thing ever," Bob said pleasantly. He was watch­ing his whiskey, swirling it slowly. "We've started lots of wars and we're still pushy."

"Exactly. So you just got back last night? Tell me." With her head ducked toward his, she listened carefully, was transported back to the town of Shirley Falls, where she had not been in many years. "Oh, Bobby," she said sadly, more than once, as she listened.

Finally she straightened up. "By God." She got the bartender's atten­tion, indicated another round. "Okay. First of all: Can I ask a stupid question? Why did he do this?"

"Very good question." Bob nodded. "I don't know what's behind it. He seems so amazed that it turned out to be serious. Honestly, I don't know."

Pam tucked her hair behind her ear. "All right. Well, second of all, he needs to be on medication. He's crying alone in his room? That's clinical and needs attention. And third of all: Fuck Jim." Pam's husband, Ted, did not like her to swear, and the word felt like a well- hit tennis ball as

it left her mouth. "Just fuck Jim. Fuck. Him. I would say the Wally Packer trial spoiled him, but I thought he was an asshole before that."

"You're right." There was no one else Bob would allow to say that about Jim. But Pam had standing. Pam was family, his oldest friend. "Did you just snap your fingers at that bartender?"

"I moved my fingers. Relax. So you're going back up there for this demonstration?"

"I don't know yet. Zach worries me. Susan said he was scared beyond reason in that holding cell and she doesn't even know what a holding cell looks like. I think I'd die in a holding cell, and you take one look at Zach and realize he's less equipped." Bob put his head back as he drank from his whiskey glass.

Pam tapped her finger on the bar. "Wait. So could he go to jail for this?"

Bob opened his hand upward. "I don't know. The problem could be with the civil rights woman in the state AG's office. I did a little research today. Her name's Diane Dodge. She joined the AG's office a couple years ago after doing civil rights work in all the right places, and she's probably gung ho. If she decides to go ahead with a civil rights violation and Zach's found guilty of it, screws up on any of the conditions, then he could go to jail for up to a year. It's not impossible, is what I'm saying. And who knows what the Feds will do. I mean, it's nuts."

"Won't Jim know the woman in the AG's office? He'd know someone there."

"Well, he knows the AG, Dick Hartley. Diane Dodge sounds too young to have been there with him. I'll find out when he gets home."

"But Jim got along well in that office."

"He was headed right to the top." Bob shook his glass and the ice cubes rattled. "Then Mom died and he couldn't leave the state fast enough."

"I remember. It was weird." Pam pushed her wineglass forward and the bartender filled it.

Bob said, "Jim can't go barging in, pulling strings with Dick Hartley, though. That's just not an option."

Pam was rummaging around in her handbag. "Yeah. Still. If anyone can pull strings it's Jim. They won't even know their strings are being pulled."

Bob drank the last of his whiskey and pushed the glass toward the bartender, who placed a new one before him. "How are the kids?"

Pam looked up, her eyes softened. "They're great, Bob. I suppose in another year or so they'll hate me and get pimples. But right now they're the sweetest, funniest boys."

He knew she was holding back. He and Pam had worn themselves down trying for kids, putting off going to a doctor for years (as though they had known it would be the end of them), agreeing in vague conver­sations that getting pregnant should happen naturally and would, until Pam — her anxiety increasing monthly — suddenly said that such think­ing was provincial. "There's a reason it's not happening," she cried. Add­ing, "And it's probably me." Not having his wife's inclination toward science, Bob had silently agreed, only because this aspect of women seemed to him more complicated than issues for men, and in Bob's im­precise imaginings he pictured Pam going in for a tune- up, tubes cleared, the rest cleaned, as though ovaries could be polished.

But it was Bob.

Immediately, this made — and still made — devastating sense to him. When he was small he had heard his mother say, "If a couple can't con­ceive, then God knows what He's doing. Look at crazy Annie Day, ad­opted by well- intentioned people" — raising her eyebrows — "but they sure weren't made for parenthood." Oh, that's ludicrous! Pam had shouted this many times during those months they were trying to get used to it: Bob not being able to reproduce. Your mother was smart, Bob, but she wasn't educated, and that's just magical thinking, it's ludicrous, crazy Annie Day was crazy from the start.

So it took its toll. It did.

When Pam balked at adoption — "We'll end up with our own crazy Annie Day" — he had been troubled. When she balked at insemination from a donor, he was troubled further. The relentlessness of the situa­tion seemed to finally loosen the weave of their marital fabric. And when he met Ted, two years after Pam moved out (two years during which she had often called him in tears about stupid dates with stupid men), he saw that Pam, with her strong mind and splintering anxieties, had meant what she said: "I just want to start over."

Pam was twirling a strand of hair around her finger. "So what hap­pened with Sarah? Do you ever see her anymore? Are you guys broken up broken up? Or just taking a break?"

"Broken up." Bob drank his whiskey, looked around. "I guess she's okay, I don't hear from her."

"She never liked me."

Bob gave a small shrug to indicate she shouldn't worry about it. In fact Sarah, who in the beginning thought it was so pleasing and civilized that Bob and Pam (and Ted and the boys) all stayed connected — since her own ex-husband was evil — had come to resent Pam tremendously. Even if weeks went by when Bob and Pam didn't speak, Sarah said, "She picks up the phone whenever she wants to be really understood. She rejected you, Bob, for a whole new life. But she still depends on you because she thinks you know her so well."

"I do know her so well. And she knows me."

The ultimatum was finally presented. No marriage to Sarah unless Pam was out of the picture for good. The arguments, the talks, the end­less distress — but Bob, finally, could not do that.

Helen had said, "Bob, are you crazy? If you love Sarah, stop talking to Pam. Jim, tell him he's crazy to do this."

Jim surprisingly would not tell him that. He said, "Pam is Bob's fam­ily, Helen."

Pam nudged him now with her elbow. "What was it? What hap­pened?"

"Strident," Bob said, his eyes going over the people pressed up to the bar. "Sarah became strident. It ended, that's all."

"I told my friend Toni about you and she'd love to have dinner." Pam snapped down a business card she had taken from her bag.

Bob squinted, pulled out his glasses. "Did she seriously dot the i with a little smiley face? I don't think so." He slid the card back to Pam.

"Fair." She dropped the card back into her bag.

"I have friends always trying to fix me up, don't worry."

"Dating's awful," Pam said, and Bob shrugged and said it pretty much was.

It was wintry dark by the time they left, Pam stumbling once or twice as they crossed the park to Fifth Avenue; she'd had three glasses of wine. Her shoes were low- heeled and pointy-toed, he noticed. She was skin­nier than the last time he'd seen her. "This dinner party I showed up too early for," she was saying, steadying herself on his arm while she shook something from her shoe. "People at the party started talking about an­other couple who weren't there, saying they had no taste. Meaning bad artwork. I think. I'm not sure. It made me really nervous, Bobby. People could be saying I'm socially eager and have no taste."

He couldn't help it, his laughter burst out. "Pam. Who cares?"

She looked at him and suddenly laughed deeply, her laugh familiar to him from long ago. "Really. Who the fucking fuck cares?"

"Maybe people say Pam Carlson is really smart and used to work with a great parasitologist."

"Bobby, nobody even knows what a parasitologist is. You should hear them. A what? Oh, that. My mother went to India and got a parasite and was sick for two years, that's what they say. Fuck it." She stopped walk­ing and looked at him. "Have you ever noticed how Asians just go ahead and bump into you, how they don't seem to have any sense of personal space? Boy, that pisses me off."

He took her elbow lightly. "Mention that at your next dinner party. Let me get you a taxi."

"I'll walk you to the subway station, oh, okay." He had already hailed one, and he opened the door now and helped her get in. "Goodbye, Bobby, that was fun."

"You say hi to all the boys." He stood in the street and waved as the taxi sped off into traffic, the busyness of neon lights around him. She turned and waved from the back window, and he kept waving until the taxi drove out of sight.

From the book, The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright 2013 by Elizabeth Strout. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Audio excerpted from The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright 2013 by Elizabeth Strout. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

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