The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

When it was released in 1998, I somehow missed Jo Ann Beard’s debut collection of essays, but as luck would have it, I recently fell down an Internet rabbit hole and ended up here, at the first publication of her now iconic essay, “The Fourth State of Matter.”

The essay is, in part, Beard’s account of surviving of the University of Iowa shooting in 1991. At the time, she was working in the physics department and unexpectedly left early that day. But she knew the gunman, and one of the victims, Christoph Goertz, who was a colleague. I can think of few writers able to merge an account of that nightmarish crime with the dark comedy of caring for an aging collie, a marriage on the rocks, and particle physics. Here’s an excerpt:

Christoph Goertz. He’s hip in a professorial, cardigan/jeans kind of way. He’s tall and lanky and white-haired, forty-seven years old, with an elegant trace of accent from his native Germany. He has a great dog, a giant black outlaw named Mica, who runs through the streets of Iowa City at night, inspecting garbage cans. She’s big and friendly but a bad judge of character, and frequently runs right into the arms of the dogcatcher. Chris is always bailing her out.

On its release, Publisher’s Weekly called the collection a “vividly realized collage of episodes,” an effect that arises from Beard’s ability to juxtapose places and times. The missing presence of a grandfather, for example, on visits to her remarried grandmother is never directly addressed, but wonderfully shown in the young Beard’s attuned sense of change in the familiar house. Or as she tries to please a perfectionist, her husband. In the title essay, the epic account is part a chronicle of divorce, part coming of age in the Seventies, and for this reader, a grand testament to the long term friendships women have, and the emotional range within them, from inane goofiness to fierce, life-saving comradeship.

Beard’s voice on the page has a wry intimacy that recalls greats like Flannery O’Connor and Bobbie Jo Mason, and Beard, who grew up in the South, has a similar preternatural sense of place. In an appreciation of Beard’s collection at the Michigan Quarterly Review, Claire Skinner writes:

“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.”

Beard’s voice is as full of doubt as it is mettle. You can trust a voice like that. No matter what the subject, the essay is one you’ve been waiting to read about.

—Lauren Alwan

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