In Praise of Jo Ann Beard

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I admit that I’m fifteen years late to the Jo Ann Beard party. Her first book, The Boys of My Youth, was published in 1998 to considerable fanfare. However, I’ve always been a firm believer in literary serendipity: books show up in a life at the right time and the right place. Maggie Nelson has written that “the truly important, original, and strange work does get recognized, does get found, by those who need to recognize it and find it.” (Even if it takes a while, I might add.)

I stumbled upon The Boys of My Youth, a collection of personal essays, during a time in my life when I craved crystalline, chiseled nonfiction of the autobiographical variety, nonfiction that dealt with the matters of the heart without succumbing to self-pity. My request was this: as I read, I wanted to laugh, loudly, and I wanted to cry (and, if not cry, at least weep). With these qualifications in mind, I looked for most of the month of August without much luck, until one day, while cleaning my desk, I uncovered The Boys of My Youth, sitting there next to my Verizon bill, waiting for me to pick it up and read. “Uncommonly beautiful,” the cover crooned to me. “An astonishment.”

Of course you know by now that I’m besotted with The Boys of My Youth, but here’s what you don’t know: I take it with me while I’m out doing errands, in the off chance I’ll need Beard’s wise words while I’m away from home. No matter what happens out there in the large, weird world, I have this book in my pocketbook, keeping me company.

And to be kept company is a wonderful thing. After a loved one dies, family and friends show up with casseroles, stews, bottles of wine. Everyone just sits around and looks at each other, talking quietly. Jokes are told, jokes at the expense of the departed, sure, but never mean-spirited. There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of crying quietly into pillows in the bedroom. It’s not that the visitors have anything particularly helpful to say or that their casseroles are all that delicious: they’re there, simply, to keep company. They’re there to pay attention to the mourner’s suffering and, miraculously, by paying attention to that suffering they help contain it, at least for a little while. As Zen teacher John Tarrant writes: “Attention is the most basic form of love.”

Keeping company, paying attention: this is Beard’s primary tactic throughout The Boys of My Youth, a collection that defies easy categorization. We could certainly call The Boys of My Youth a memoir, in that, yes, Beard writes exclusively about her own life, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. Memoir, by and large, follows the form of the novel (its not-so-distant cousin) in that it tends to be driven by plot. But Beard is definitely not married to plot, to that usual narrative arc that requires things to happen! time to progress! characters to change!

Not much goes on in The Boys of My Youth: A child overhears grown-ups talking in the kitchen. A coyote walks around in the desert. Two friends smoke cigarettes on a porch. The major action, when it does occur, occurs off-stage. As such, Beard’s essays feel akin to lyric poetry. In a lyric poem, what happens isn’t important, but how the poet feels about what happens most certainly is. For me, Beard’s a poet, who just happens to write beautiful, beautiful prose.

So, just in case you haven’t reached your beautiful, beautiful prose quota for the day, I invite you to read this excerpt from “The Fourth State of Matter,” an essay which elegantly grapples with the murder of Beard’s colleagues at the University of Iowa:

In the porchlight, the trees shiver, the squirrels turn over in their sleep. The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a chalkboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings. It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us is aware of it yet.

Would you believe me if I told you this essay was also, at times, laugh-out-loud funny?

Perhaps I keep returning to Beard because I find her voice intoxicating. Without the push of plot and character development, what becomes paramount is Beard’s voice, that fingerprint (inimitable, personal) that defines a writer. Voice, of course, is personality on the page: a combination of qualities tangible and intangible, obvious and subtle. Who’s ever fallen in love with an idea? No one. It’s the personality we love.boysofmy youth

Beard’s voice is the voice of your best friend, crackling over the telephone. She’s your witty friend, your intense friend, a girl you can call up at quarter past midnight with nothing to say but “Hi, I’m lonesome,” and she understands completely. Beard has an ability (an ability that many writers, myself included, would pay serious cash for) to hit multiple pitches: the achingly high soprano of grief, the mellow alto of taking acid at an Eric Clapton concert in 1978. She does all of this with a no-nonsense, wry sense of humor.

Or imagine beginning an essay (“Against the Grain”) like this:

It’s okay to be married to a perfectionist, at least for a while. Just don’t try to remodel a house with one, is all I can say.

Keats famously wrote that “The excellence of art is its intensity.” I concur, and I might also say, The excellence of art is its ability to deadpan, every now and again. My maxim is a little less catchy than Keats’s (!), but one worth holding onto, I think.

Essentially, to deadpan is to say something very, very funny, or very, very sad while keeping a straight—that is, emotionless, or dead—face. The effect of all this? A hilarious, slightly uncomfortable tension. (The current reigning queen of this trick is Tig Notaro, comedian extraordinaire.) Take Beard’s opening sentence, for example: “It’s okay to be married to a perfectionist, at least for a little while.” The content here (depressing and sad: a marriage on the rocks) is at odds with the author’s off-handed, flippant tone. Similar deadpan sentences are scattered liberally throughout The Boys of My Youth, which means, among other things, that Beard can get away with talking about intensely emotional topics without falling into an abyss of clichéd sentimentality, an abyss that most writers are terrified of, yet fall into anyway. Beard’s quiet humor counterbalances the book’s major undercurrents: heartache, sadness, the bittersweet nostalgia for what’s been lost to time.

I’m remembering when my grandfather died in the hospital. After he died, we sat around his hospital bed for a long time, while my aunt, a Buddhist, recited a traditional death prayer. It was late and we were hungry, so my stepmother made us rice cakes with peanut butter. My father looked over at me, half-laughing: “I bet you didn’t think you were going to spend your Friday night eating peanut butter next to a dead man.” But that’s exactly what I did. I ate peanut butter on a rice cake next to my dead grandfather, and cried. Every thirty minutes the digital watch on his wrist beeped.

Reading Beard, I can’t help but wonder: Have I stumbled onto the set of a comedy–or is this a tragedy? Ultimately, I think the power of The Boys of My Youth is that it vacillates, effortlessly, between tragedy and comedy until the distinction between the two blurs, becomes immaterial.

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