After writing about rereading books in the last post, I decided to make good on my wish from earlier this year to reread In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. I read it for the first time in just a couple of hours on the beach in Mexico, which was super fun, but given that this is only Jo Ann Beard’s second book, and she’s one of my very favorite (most favorite?) writers, I needed another go at it so I could actually savor the prose.
But, this is a book that is impossible to take slow. What I’ll have to do is read it over and over again until I memorize it (as I have with some passages of Boys of My Youth). I think, because each sentence is both simple and perfect, there is nothing to slow the reader down. They range from understatedly hilarious to understatedly tragic, and are always incredibly true. There is an amazing economy here. Check out this first paragraph:
We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job.
Ms. Beard gives us the pitch-perfect voice of this “late-bloomer” of a fourteen year old girl, growing up in a small 1970s Midwestern city with a similarly overlooked best friend, Flea–until a falling out sparked by their discovery by a group of popular girls, the two of them function essentially as one–a put-upon mother, an alcoholic father and a collection of siblings, friends, and, newly on the periphery, boys. She manages to expose the girls’ shortcomings–which are both their own and mere functions of their age–without mocking them or being reductive. Ms. Beard is so able to portray the mindsets and whims of these girls that even when they are making terrible decisions (pg. 64: “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade instead of during it.”) they aren’t the mystery to the reader that they are to the other adults in the story (their mothers, especially). She captures that fourteen year old mix of tentativeness and impulsiveness, of idiocy and fragility.
When I lent this book to someone who was intrigued by my description of Jo Ann’s writing, he professed to love the first few pages, but then asked what exactly was going to happen in this book, and when. I told him that if he was asking that question, he should probably stop reading, which he did. Believe me–a lot happens in this book but the reader has to be calibrated for it. These girls struggle with small day-to-day issues that loom large only to the people involved (and the readers who love them): a sick kitten, yearned-for clothing held hostage by layaway, who witnessed who putting a note in whose locker. But, there are big topics here, too: alcoholism (the treatment of the father’s disease is such a poignant mix of hilarity–he constantly screams “I’ll say this about that!”–exasperation, and terror. The narrator monitors the household’s shotgun and shells, panicked when they migrate between the basement and attic. The little brother, Raymond–precious, the book’s one real innocent–has his own small, heartmelting coping mechanisms), child abuse (horrifying), suicide, disability (the reader is able to see how a former babysitting charge of the narrator’s, an unresponsive little boy, has had a serious, lasting effect on her). What is so great about the book, though–and so fourteen years old–is that the kids treat the small and the big with equal concern, or even inverse proportions of concern.
One aspect of the reviews / press for this book that confuses me is that people–including Ms. Beard in an NPR interview I read–say that the narrator doesn’t have a name. She does! It’s Jo! No one ever straight up calls her Jo, or Jo Ann, in the book, but it’s clearly her name. One kid calls her “Joan,” which she says is wrong and then she goes on a whole thing about how she has the same name as the character in Little Women who goes on to have her own, worse book. Given how Ms. Beard is able to invent into her nonfiction work (to make it more true!), it makes a lot of sense to me that she’d infuse her novel with a bit of nonfiction, too. (This is documented, by the way–I hate when people talk about elements of autobiography in fiction, but in this case, it is a little bit justified).
I’m ready to read the book again already.