The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard is the second book I’ve finished in 2010. What was the first? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who has read this book knows that it tends to crowd out all else. It is the kind of book that one wants to injest, or tear up and wear close to the skin.
Ms. Beard’s collection, comprised of thirteen autobiographical stories (including the preface), contains tales of her childhood, her adulthood, the nebulous years in between, the time she and her cousin were in rowboat together, unborn in their mothers’ stomachs. She tries the boundaries of nonfiction, inhabiting her dying mother’s memory, recounting moments from her infancy, conversations for which she couldn’t have been present. But, showing us how her parents reacted (would have reacted?) to her as a screaming baby or a toddler bereft at the loss of a favorite doll, gives us their personalities, their relationships, the dynamics of the family in a way the reader can fully imagine. Rather than just presenting the outlines of what can be fact-checked, she renders her remembered reality. In stretching the genre, she writes truer stories.
I read my then-roommate’s copy of The Boy’s of My Youth a couple of years ago (Katherine’s a huge Jo Ann devotee–I practically had to pinky swear not to steal the book) and have revisited several of its pieces from time to time, stealing glimpses of “The Fourth State of Matter,” in which Ms. Beard braids together her husband’s leaving, her collie dying and the murder of her colleagues and good friends in a massacre at the University of Iowa, or the extraordinary, expansive “Cousins,” in copies I’ve purchased for friends. It wasn’t until this Christmas that I received my own copy, though, and was able to reread the book all the way through. Now, I definitely remembered how good the book was–it is by far the most referenced work in my writing group; we speak about Jo Ann with reverence that approaches cult-like devotion–but unless you are inside of the book, it is truly hard to conceive of how brilliant it is, to believe that a book could really be this good.
Take “Cousins.” Ms. Beard sets us down in that rowboat with two sisters, pregnant with two cousins. She takes us through the cousins’ lives together–a night out at a country bar, marching in a parade as little girls, stoned out of their minds at an Eric Clapton concert, their grandfather’s funeral, marriage. Somehow, at the same time, she shows us how the sisters take all of this, too–always pregnant, smoking, dusting off kids and smacking their behinds. Who does she leave us with at the end? The sisters, of course, in a moment she pulls from earlier in the story–a moment that, when first visited, is merely a lovely image, yet when revisited, having been dragged through the intervening years, is almost unbearably poignant.
There is so much more to say about this book (she writes about being drunk/high like none other, gives us the dissolution of a marriage in a quietly devastating way that would make most people blush over their own dramatic tendencies…), but let me end with this: it is every deep, wonderful literary thing in the world AND it is funny. Ms. Beard writes children, and about dealing with children, in a way that is unparalleled. Never too cute, never condescending. Here is one of my very favorite passages, from the wedding scene in “Cousins” (p. 40):
The band strikes up; four guys, two of them relatives. They play a fast number and everyone under the age of ten gets out there to dance. The littlest kids concentrate on trying to get it exactly right, swinging their hips and whirling their arms around. After about two songs all of them are out of control and sweating, hair stuck to their head, girls seeing who can slide the farthest on patent-leather shoes, boys taking aim and shooting each other with their index fingers without mercy. The parents have to step in, remove a few examples, and put them in chairs. One gets spanked first for calling his mother a dipshit in front of the whole crowd.
What’s best about this passage is that none of it is isolated from the rest of the book–details that appear here reappear later, in other stories, creating threads that weave us through the book, and through a life.
So, blog readers, join the cult of Jo Ann. You’ll be happy you’re a member.