Jo Ann Beard •
The Boys of My Youth •
Losses great and small haunt these delicately balanced pieces by Jo Ann Beard, even as the situations make you laugh out loud. I got hooked on Beard’s writing the moment I came across her younger brother making his “um-buddy” noises during Bonanza, while the rest of the family tells him to shut up.
In Beard’s skillful hands, elements of daily life take on a greater significance. A pair of Barbie dolls get drunk on Pink Squirrels and sit around naked waiting for Ken to show up. “This is where Dirty Barbies gets murky—we aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen next. Whatever happens, it’s Ken’s fault, that’s all we know.” A grandmother serves raspberries with bugs in them, reassuring the squeamish child, “Them’re dead.” A perfectionist husband comes to regard his wife like the house they’re remodeling together—a fixer-upper with potential.
“Bulldozing the Baby,” my favorite in this collection, hits home at every level: the perfidy of adults, the long memories and fierce affections of children, and the immense gulf between the two species.
In “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard is caring for an elderly, incontinent collie when she learns of shootings at her workplace, the physics department of a Midwestern university. She plays Maserati with the dog’s long snout, pretending it’s a gearshift. “I take her muzzle and we move through the gears slowly, first second third fourth, all the way through town, until what has happened has happened and we know it has happened.”
Beard’s essays read like well-crafted fiction, yet they carry the unmistakable stamp of truth. Either way you look at them, they’re superb.