My lyric essay teacher is a big fan of Jo Ann Beard. In the three classes I’ve taken so far, she’s offered us extracts from Beard’s essay collection, The Boys of My Youth. I fell in love with Beard after reading her essay “Bonanza”.
As a young child, Beard goes to spend a week with her grandmother. Granny still works, caring for senior citizens some of whom are much younger than she. While Granny is away at work, the child Beard must amuse herself as best she can. She takes dozens of trips to the refrigerator in the hope that something sweet might materialize. She jumps on the bed, empties drawers, eats way too many sugar cubes. Beard will do anything for amusement.
The lovely rotating fan, something that moved of its own accord in the dead house during the long afternoons. I would set the rotating fan on a footstool in the long, narrow bedroom. My job was to feed Kleenexes into it and then pick up the shredded pieces. By the end of one of those stultifying afternoons, I’d have an empty Kleenex box and a whole wastebasket full of soft pink confetti.Jo Ann Beard, “Bonanza” in The Boys of My Youth (Back Bay Books 1998)
I’ve been bored like this. I think we all have. If I had had the presence of mind to use our rotating fan as Beard did, my childhood might not have felt so interminable. On the strength of this extract, I decided it was time for me to read Beard’s entire collection. It was a good choice.
Dogs and fish
The Boys of My Youth is not a memoir but rather “Autobiographical Essays.” Beard is, by turns, a toddler, a teenager, an embryo, a young adult, a married woman, a soon-to-be divorcee and back again. By the end of the collection, Beard is neither older nor wiser.
Instead, you sense a life filled with night skies and chalkboards, dogs and boats. I suspect that, at least as a child, Beard spent a lot of time fishing.
In “Cousins,” Beard’s mother and aunt have gone fishing. They’re in a little boat on a lake somewhere in Illinois. Beard is there, too.
My cousin and I are floating in separate, saline oceans. I’m the size of a cocktail shrimp and she’s the size of a man’s thumb. My mother is the one on the left, wearing baggy gabardine trousers and a man’s shirt. My cousin’s mother is wearing blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, and a cotton blouse printed with wild cowboys roping steers.Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins”
This technique of creative nonfiction is called perhapsing. It’s what a memoirist can do when memory fails or simply cannot serve. It’s okay as long as you give the reader fair warning. Did anyone think Beard witnessed her own incubation? How about this next passage?
It is nine o’clock on Saturday night, the sky is black and glittering with pinholes, old trees are bent down over the highway. In the dark field behind, the corn gathers its strength, grows an inch in the silence, then stops to rest. Next to the highway, screened in vegetation, a deer with muscular ears and glamorous eyes stands waiting to spring out from the winds into the next moving spotlight. The asphalt sighs in anticipation.Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins”
Before and After
Rather than chronology, the structure of The Boys of My Youth is defined by its epicenter. “The Fourth State of Matter” depicts a shooting at the University of Iowa. Seven people will die, including the gunman. An eighth victim survives as a paraplegic. Beard should have been number nine but that day her boss tells her to go home early. Beard calls it “the last day of the first part of my life.”
No boats appear in “The Fourth State of Matter.” No one goes fishing. There are many dogs and squirrels, the latter soon to be evicted by an ex-beauty queen turned veterinarian.
She has long red hair and a smile that can stop trucks. I’ve seen her wrestle goats, scare off a giant snake, and express a dog’s anal glands, all in one afternoon.Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter”
“The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker, five years after the shooting took place. It is astonishing that any writer could pull themselves together to put one word after the other. In lyric essay circles, “The Fourth State of Matter” is called the seminal threaded (or braided) essay. Theoretical physics, an imploding marriage, and a dying collie. And this is before she gets to the school shooting.
My lyric essay class examines Beard’s command of registers. A register is like a piano. Some of us speak in the upper octaves with polysyllabic words strung in the passive tense. Others of us speak in the bass range using four-letter words and a lot of gestures.
At the time of the shooting, Beard’s boss and his fellow theoretical physicists talk plasma aka the fourth state of matter. After the shooting, the women speak the language of grief, as in “I think we should brace ourselves in case something bad has happened.”
The second half of The Boys of My Youth retraces some of the temporal territory covered in the first half. The father, who was largely absent in the first half, turns out to be a drunk. The mother who was so spunky and smart-mouthed in her fishing boat is at wit’s end when Beard’s beloved doll Hal goes missing.
My mother is sewing a button on my father’s shirt while he’s still wearing it. “I was having this terrible feeling,” she says, “that she’d be this forty-year-old woman, going around telling people we took her d-o-l-l away from her.”Jo Ann Beard, “Bulldozing Baby”
The humor is still there, as are the sharp images and lyrical language. But there is a weight to the second half. The future is marred by the Iowa shooting but so is Beard’s memory of the past. What feat to draw a reader in with agile prose and a wacky imagination, only to ensnare us with the weight of her experiences.
Beard reels us in and then flings us back into the water again only to hook us with a different kind of bait.Sarah M. Wells, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Issue 2.1 (Fall 2015)
12 Feb 2022 | Karen Kao