I reviewed Jo Ann Beard’s long-awaited new novel over at The Rumpus:
“Ten years ago, when I was first attempting to write a memoir, another aspiring writer said I really should check out this new-ish book by Jo Ann Beard, called The Boys of My Youth. I got a paperback copy and fell in love with the sentence “That deer had legs like canes, feet like Dixie cups.” I underlined “Pink geraniums grow like earrings on either side of the porch” and “My aunt’s chin turns into a walnut, and then she’s crying too.” In Beard’s writing, the ordinary life was extraordinary—and it read with the vividness of fiction. I began mimicking her attention to middle-class American detail, her intensity of staying in scene. As it happens, a whole lot of other young writers were falling in love with The Boys of My Youth and doing the same thing. Thirteen years after its publication, The Boys of My Youth has already reached canonical, genre-redefining status, held up in classrooms across the country as an example of all the lines “Creative Nonfiction” can cross.
Because aside from “The Fourth State of Matter,” nothing conventionally dramatic happens in the connected essays that make up The Boys of My Youth. Even in “The Fourth State of Matter,” the emphasis is daringly on the ordinary. On the surface, the story is about a horrific office-rampage in Iowa by a deranged shooter, which Beard was spared witnessing only because she left work early that day. Beard’s brilliance was to parallel the build up to the shooting with the last days of her failed marriage—and to make the climax not coming to terms with her officemate’s deaths, but finally accepting the split from her husband. Offensive to readers who find it galling that a writer should place her private drama on a plane of equal importance with lives lost. But: truer to life.
Beard once again takes the strangely subversive tack in her new novel, In Zanesville. The stock descriptor “long awaited” feels inadequate; “long labored over” might be right, but mildly put. You can see the results of that anguished laboring in the details of the new novel, and the details of this novel are everything, because once again Beard stakes her aesthetic on making the texture of an almost defiantly ordinary experience painstakingly precise and true. Like The Boys of My Youth, In Zanesville is about, well, boys—or really, the difficult achievement of maturity that comes from dealing with boys. The main character narrates in a present-tense voice that stays convincingly adolescent yet is subtly infused with super-adolescent insight. She never gives her name, but she bears remarkable resemblance to the Jo Ann of The Boys of My Youth, though the setting now is Illinois. She has a sidekick, Felicia, who goes by Flea. (Other girlfriends go by last names like Luekenfelter and Maroni, while the cheerleaders are Patti, Cindy.) The narrator and Flea are “late bloomers,” as the narrator’s mother puts it—and then, enter the boys.
Of course, there are also men at the margins—most notably, the narrator’s father, who is a drunk. Here is where Beard’s daring comes in.”
Keep reading here.