With the precise and true texture of ordinary experience, Jo Ann Beard’s new novel, In Zanesville, follows an unnamed narrator through her adolescence.
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. During the course of the story, the narrator’s father disappears and—remembering his box of bullets missing from thebasement, his shotgun in the attic—the narrator becomes convinced that he has shot himself and is lying dead, overhead. This story sequence is artfully suspended in time, so that we swirl within the girl’s dread. Whereas most novelists would have made this dramatic sequence the climax of the novel, Beard places it smack in the center. Instead, the larger novel’s turn revolves around a tiff between Flea and the narrator, when Flea pairs off with a boy during a cheerleader party, and the narrator is left alone, feeling abandoned. Will Flea and the narrator reconcile, and how? That’s the book’s climax. If you accept Beard’s implicit brand of realism, which posits that this small drama actually takes up just as much psychic space to a 13-year-old girl as the fear of losing her father, then I daresay the subversion works.
Is accepting that brand of realism more challenging in a novel than in nonfiction? I stumbled over that question as I began reading In Zanesville. Gradually, the precision won me over, and the light humor, touches like the narrator’s drunken father repeating “I’ll tell you this about that” like a mad hatter; an earnestly eager high school art teacher telling the narrator again and again that what she’s going to see on a museum field trip will “blow your mind.” The logic of adolescent decision-making is miraculously rendered, as when the narrator rejects a cute boy: “Better to be the plain girl from history class who didn’t kiss him than the plain girl from history class who did.” Then too, there’s great payoff when Beard accurately captures the weird sensation of leaving childhood behind, as in this late passage:
“In the dresser mirror, my face looks the same, but I feel something happening around me, some change as palpable as weather. Stuck in the mirror are mementos from my childhood—red and yellow ribbons for various underachievements, a brown corsage from grade school graduation, a curling and faded picture of me petting a deer in Wisconsin—which is now over. I wandered through it and came out the other side.
It’s a stark feeling. Like getting to the last page of a book and seeing ‘The End.’ Even if you didn’t like the story that much, or your childhood, you read it, you lived it. And now it’s over, book closed, that long-ago deer you petted in the Dells as dead as the one in The Yearling.
I go across the hall and knock.”
Will In Zanesville become as beloved as The Boys of My Youth? I can’t predict. I slowly became immersed in it and deeply admiring of it. I do have reservations about the beginning and the end, in which Beard uses a lot of short scene cuts with white space to frame the narrative—this device felt awkward and formally contrived. But everything else felt uncompromisingly true. And if good writing is, as Deborah Eisenberg has put it, about “sneaking under the fence of interpretation” to take us back to what an experience is really like, Beard has redelivered us to a common experience of growing up with obsessive fidelity.
Photo of Jo Ann Beard by Jose Garcia.