Back Bay Books, 1999. ISBN: 0316085251
by Katherine Michalak
In The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard presents a collection of linked essays: snapshots from her childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Raised in the Midwest in the 1950s and 1960s, she brings readers into a world where her mother and aunt fish together “in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake,” where Grandma bakes greasy peanut butter cookies and provides a bottomless sugar cube bowl, where multiple generations of women smoke as though nicotine is a prerequisite for leisure, and where four year-old boys’ entertainment is to “throw dirt and beat each other with sticks all day long.”
Out of this cultural soil, Beard matures into a woman who edits a physics journal for the University of Iowa, as well as who gains recognition for her own writing. She marries, further altering the textures of her life: in the fifth essay, “Coyotes”, she reveals this romantic union to be as empty as an Arizona night sky. Out of this void, she nonetheless finds a means for loving, and tends to an ailing collie with wholehearted dedication. Ultimately, she navigates loss, death, and divorce without losing sight of the lasting friendships which prove to be nourishing constants in her life.
The memoir is told more thematically than chronologically. An image of a “snake-thin” cheerleading coach—one of the “monsters” in Beard’s noisy, people-filled high school world—is juxtaposed with a lonely and retrospective 100-mile journey, when Beard is an adult, to visit her mother’s tombstone. In the essay, “Cousins,” she tells a story of her and her cousin almost hitting a deer one night while driving to a bar through rural Midwestern cornfields. “He could have wrecked my whole front end,” her cousin says, with the stoicism of a young woman whose father provides venison for dinner. Later in the essay, Beard jumps back in time to a childhood scene in which she and this same cousin are riding bicycles in a community parade full of cowboy hat-sporting children. Thus, we learn of the child Beard’s “good underpants without holes,” which she wears for the parade, within two pages of witnessing the young adult Beard blowing cigarette smoke in the face of a bar-goer who makes unwanted advances. This pair of chronologically separate but thematically unified anecdotes effectively conjures the cultural norms, strong family ties, and enduring friendships which influence Beard’s coming-of-age.
The primary theme, indicated by the title, is that of Beard’s relationships with men, which prove vacant. However, she engages this subject obliquely enough that one sometimes doubts its presence. After opening with a self-conscious childhood moment, in which she wishes she were more attractive in the presence of a group of boys, Beard splits off into memories of grandparents, cousins, and allergies; stories in which romance plays no part. Following these anecdotes, the essay, “Coyotes,” does address the theme, depicting her vacuous marital relationship; and the subsequent two essays underline her struggles with this man.
Next, in “Bulldozing the Baby,” she describes her dominance, as a three year-old, over an ugly doll named Hal, perhaps using this humorous story as a means of commenting on romantic attachment. “I [carry] Hal by the feet,” she says. “His shoes are warm from the sun and he smiles as I drag his face along through the grass and then—bump, bump—up the two steps and into the house.” What parallels we draw between this anecdote and romantic relationships in general, Beard leaves up to us.
In the final essay, “The Boys of My Youth,” she weaves memories of early crushes into the telling of her divorce. Yet throughout the memoir, Beard emphasizes the sensory experience of her reality, rather than her attendant thought processes about men, which means we are spared the romance-obsession one might expect, judging from the book’s title. Thanks to this tasteful approach, the theme builds silently, without seeming heavy-handed.
Beard writes about herself without naval-gazing or spilling her soul: introverted and reserved are words which come to mind for this author’s voice. The Boys of My Youth is at variance from the confessional tales which once defined the genre of memoir, and although it offers a visceral impression of the author’s life, the collection is undeniably fragmented—enigmatic, even. It is as though Beard places her reader behind a cracked door: the view is intimate, but incomplete.
And yet, perhaps it is Beard’s cryptic doling out of memories which gives the book its tension: one feels as though each essay provides a clue in a scavenger hunt, enticing one forward in anticipation of some final prize, some “ah-hah” about her life—or even about life in general. In part, the brilliance of The Boys of My Youth lies in Beard’s ability to sustain this tension even while writing primarily about everyday events. One might argue that the most well-known essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which was originally published in the New Yorker and features a violent shooting, couldn’t be further from mundane. However, the tragedy’s placement in the second third of the collection—along with the fact that we don’t expect it, due to the prior essays’ lack of lead-ins—demands that Beard’s writing hook readers irrespective of this climactic event. In a literary environment saturated with accounts of trauma and violence, Beard proves that the simple details of one person’s life—even during times which lack sensational intrigue—can be rendered compelling and memorable.
While some readers might find The Boys of My Youth lacking in explicit emotion—Beard describes her history in a non-reflective, deadpan tone—this collection portrays greater depth than one might initially realize. By her very reserve, Beard proves that memoir is an art form capable of capturing unique human essence, even when that essence doesn’t gush or speak candidly for itself.
Like art photography, Beard’s intentionally framed, offset imagery leaves one with thought-provoking impressions which refuse to dissipate.