Scene One takes place in the living room of my college apartment. I’m enrolled in my first creative writing workshop, Intro to Creative Nonfiction, and I’ve set up at the little table my roommate and I use as a kitchen table (even though it’s in the living room). I have highlighters and a pen ready to go, and the photocopied, stapled pages of my reading assignment stacked before me: “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. I’m ready to take notes on her writing style, her rhetorical strategies, the way she’ll thread together pieces of her life into a narrative, one that will illuminate something for the reader, something for me. I’m ready to study her craft, as I have done with every other reading assignment for this course. But by the end of the essay, my highlighter is long abandoned, my pen useless. I’m actively sobbing, not just wet to the cheek but shoulders heaving, nose running, sobbing.
Scene Two takes place in a coffee shop, a little under a week ago. I’m finally reading the book from which this essay was photocopied, The Boys of My Youth. It’s been exactly as good as I’d thought it would be, elegant and heartbreaking in all the best ways. I’ve reached “The Fourth State of Matter,” and for a moment I pause, remembering my reaction last time. Last time, I tell myself, I was completely unprepared for the content of the essay. This time I know what’s coming. I’ll be able to keep it together. About halfway through the essay, though, I’m sobbing again. The actual kind again. This essay…there’s just nothing I can do about it.
The Boys of My Youth is a collection of personal essays by Jo Ann Beard. As the title would suggest, the essays do explore past relationships, including a marriage that, throughout the course of the book, achingly disintegrates. But the scope is broader than just that. Beard writes about her mother, cousins, coworkers, even beloved old toys. The theme that links them all seems to be love, or more specifically, the moment (or moments) when a great love changes, when something makes it turn, move, grow into something else. The result is often devastating, but Beard writes with such clarity that the book never reads as weepy (my reaction to one essay aside). If anything, there is a lot of hope in these essays, for as Beard examines these pieces of her life, they are made present again. The act of studying them allows them to persist, allows the lost loves of Beard’s life to be changed, rather than to disappear forever.
One thing that Beard is particularly good at is writing from her perspective as a toddler. She is able to perfectly inhabit her childlike sensibility, and at the same time, communicate the child logic in a way that makes piercing sense. Often, a writer is able to inhabit the voice of the version of themselves they were within the story and then reflect on their past self with their current perspective; Beard is somehow able to do both in the same moment. The best example of this is in her essay “Bulldozing the Baby,” which is about a baby doll named Hal that she’d had as a companion. After a scene in which Beard had put Hal in the bathtub, Beard’s mother hangs him on the clothesline while Beard plays in the sandbox:
“‘I am not hurting him,’ my mother said dangerously as she pinned him up there. I better not pull a trick like that again or somebody’s in trouble […] I have on blue sunglasses with wiener dogs on the frames. I can pull up my shirt and fill my belly button with sand except if I do she’ll dig it out with the washcloth tonight. I’m starting to learn cause and effect. Hal in the bathtub means Hal up in the air.”
The most moving essay, of course, is “The Fourth State of Matter.” In this essay, Beard situates the reader into life after a divorce: the house is empty, squirrels are nesting in the abandoned bedroom that once belonged to a husband, a beloved dog is getting sicker. The only solace Beard can seem to find is at her job as an editor for a physics journal, and she recounts her relationship to her coworkers, the scientists she has come to know so well. This journal was at the University of Iowa, and in 1991, a graduate student shot and killed Beard’s colleagues in their offices while she wasn’t there; she had gone home early for the day. In this essay, Beard grapples with the unimaginable. It is heart-wrenching and so beautifully written; it truly is hard to describe. In a way it’s a tribute to those who were killed, and to the ways the lives of others can touch us. In another way, it feels like an essential record. This happened, I found myself thinking over and over again, and that feels important.
The Boys of My Youth is a beautifully written close examination of the seemingly small moments that mark us, that change the way we look at our world and at ourselves. It will break your heart, but it’s worth it.