Jim, the older brother, gained fame for his successful defence of a murder charge against a popular black soul singer, Wally Packer, who had allegedly had his white girl friend killed. Think of a white Johnny Cochran. Jim is now a member of a prominent New York City law firm specializing in white collar criminal defence.
Bob, the younger brother, is a large shambling man living quietly who was not up to the stresses of trial work. He works for Legal Aid in the appellate division reviewing cases that are being appealed and writing briefs.
Jim is living with the lovely Helen and has 3 grown children. They reside in a fine home in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn.
Bob is divorced and childless. He lives in an apartment in the same area.
They are called back to Shirley Falls because of a family crisis. Their nephew, Zack, is the only son of their sister, Susan Olson. She calls in a panic as Zack has confided to her that he has rolled the frozen head of a pig into the local mosque during prayer. There is a large community of Somali refugees in Shirley Falls.
Blood from the frozen head has stained the mosque carpet requiring special ritual cleaning. Members of the mosque are upset.
The act gains national publicity as accusations of a hate crime flow out across America.
When Jim and Bob interview Zack they find an unhappy 19 year old boy locked into a job stocking shelves at Walmart and hanging out with a friend or two in town.
His uncles' characterize Zack's actions as a dumb joke. He did not know it was a mosque. He only knew Somali people went there. He does not know the provocation to Muslims inherent in rolling the pig's head into the mosque. Somalis speak of him as Wiil Waal – “Crazy Boy”.
Zack has not been in trouble with the law. He is terrified of going to jail.
While the public thinks he is a racist and intent on stirring up conflict between the whites and Somalis of Shirley Falls he is really a scared boy who was not thinking of consequences and had no intent to make any political statement. Later in the book his motivations become a little more complex but Zack is no agitator.
He is the type of person I have encountered throughout my life as a defence counsel. He is young and male and committed a stupid act that neither caused physical harm nor took money from anyone. He is a criminal until you meet him. Upon meeting you realize he could be almost any young man who acted foolishly in the wrong way.
As a prominent member of the legal community Jim has connections within the state Department of Justice.
Bob has compassion.
With the aid of a local defence lawyer they follow a common legal strategy. They set a trial date well into the future and look to make a deal when public furor has diminished. I pass on their legal approach as it is not a book whose plot is dependant on dramatic legal flourishes.
It was an interesting book but it did not read easily. All of the major characters have dreary lives and far more problems than joy. The public Jim is a friendly affable guy. Privately he is sarcastic and moody. Bob kind of muddles along lonely and tentative. Susan lives a life of mind numbing routine. Zack spends most of his time in his room. When the characters lack zest, let alone sparkle, I find it harder to enjoy the book. Other readers may find them intriguing. Many prominent reviews praise the book. I found the Burgess family sad.
I credit Strout for writing about a credible legal approach to a criminal case that avoids the national spectacle Zack’s case could have become were he represented by some defence counsel. Using time to defend Zack lacks drama but it is realistic.
I am not sure if I would read another book from Strout. The characters would certainly need to be less depressing for me.