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She Must Remember All This

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The Boys of My Youth By Jo Ann Beard
Little, Brown; 224 pages; $22.95 cloth

Jo Ann Beard grabs the title of hero in the sort-of-true story of her own short life

By Tai Moses

ONE AFTERNOON IN 1991, Jo Ann Beard went home early from her job as managing editor of a space-physics journal at the University of Iowa. While she was agonizing over her unfaithful husband, her beloved dying collie and the family of rambunctious squirrels nesting in the upstairs bedroom, a deranged graduate student walked into the physics department at the university and opened fire, gunning down six of Beard's colleagues, among them her boss, a close friend.

This horrific event lies at the heart of Beard's story "The Fourth State of Matter," which appeared in the June 1996 fiction issue of The New Yorker under the rubric Personal History. The piece was also selected for Best American Essays of 1997 and probably won Beard a contract for her first book, The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical narratives in which "The Fourth State of Matter" shimmers like a jewel in a spindly tin crown.

"The Fourth State of Matter" is an arresting piece of writing. Darkly comic, unsentimental and melancholy, it merges the resonance of fiction with the heartbreaking sting of fact. The story's quirky, disparate elements work to high literary effect: the manic squirrels; the ex-beauty-queen friend who comes to get rid of them; the pathetic messages the "vanished husband" leaves on Beard's answering machine; and finally the murders themselves, which she recreates with harrowing immediacy.

The piece created a small stir when it first appeared. Some critics were unsettled by Beard's application of refined narrative technique to a real-life tragedy. Similar criticism was leveled at novelist Kathryn Harrison after publication of The Kiss, her memoir about her incestuous relationship with her father. It wasn't just that Harrison had made public such a shameful secret; the real complaint seemed to be that she did it so beautifully. But how could she not? To expect a writer to set aside her aesthetic sensibilities in the face of horror seems absurd.

As Harrison did in The Kiss, Beard borrows heavily from the toolbox of fiction. "The Fourth State of Matter" is painstakingly crafted, and its power comes as much from its style--the artful sentences and stylized imagery, the use of the present tense--as from the disturbing subject matter. If that makes some readers squeamish, it is proof of the method's potency: nonfiction mutating into the mythic region of story.

WITH ALL THE FANFARE, perhaps it is not surprising that the rest of The Boys of My Youth fails to live up to the high expectations set by Beard's New Yorker piece. Admittedly, a multiple murder is tough to compete with, but "The Fourth State of Matter" is the only truly shaped story in the book. The surrounding pieces contain many fine bits, but few succeed on their own terms as essays or stories, and several are little more than vignettes.

Together these sketches form a loose portrait of Beard's Midwestern childhood and young adulthood. We meet her prickly mother, amiable father and bratty older sister; a reckless cousin who marries young; a boyfriend who grows into a husband.

In "The Family Hour," the author's alcoholic father wrecks the family car and nearly drowns in the process; in "Cousins," a teenage Beard and her cousin go barhopping in rural Illinois. Several stories portray the author's much-loved mother, who dies of cancer when her daughters are grown. Beard's ruined marriage and her husband's fickle love form another continuous thread.

Beard is not really an introspective writer, however, and The Boys of My Youth is not a contemplative work. The author isn't interested in the meaning of events but in their look and feel, and here she is at her best. She has a dead-on ear for dialogue, deftly evoking the funny, tense dynamics of the family dinner table, the easy banter of best friends, the flirtatious repartee between lovers. Some of her descriptive details linger: the "broomstick legs" of her aging collie; a river "the color of bourbon."

She is most captivated by what Doris Lessing has called "the writer's myth country," the summery realm of childhood. Her recollections are imbued with the vigilant eye of the middle child, the skinny asthmatic girl who has to watch the fireworks from the safety of the screened-in porch while the rest of the family lounges on the itchy grass of the front lawn.

THE PROBLEM IS THAT Beard seems to be unaware of the limitations of personal experience. Her memories, no matter how creatively depicted, remain in the sphere of the personal and rarely achieve the kind of universal appeal she seems to be aiming for.

At the beginning of Dickens' autobiographical novel David Copperfield, the eponymous protagonist wonders, famously, if he will turn out to be the hero of his own life. Beard has dispensed with such speculation and grabbed the title of hero right off the bat. She is always front and center: one of her weaknesses as a memoirist is her inability to take the back seat to any of the other characters.

Beard's autobiographical persona is faintly suggestive of memoirist Mary Karr's in The Liar's Club--a sassy, smart-aleck tomboy--but while Karr's girlhood self came across as authentic, Beard seems to be inhabiting a pose.

In her preface, for instance, Beard describes a "pre-verbal memory": as baby Jo Ann is being put to bed in her crib, she observes a night light "staring at me funny." Later, looking at the moon one clear night, a grownup Beard notices that it "seemed to be looking at me funny." In "Out There," she is driving down the highway when a lunatic in another car chases her for several miles. "That guy chased me on purpose, he hated me. Me, of all people, he wanted to kill. Me."

It is the anthem of Beard's book, her whimsical conviction that she has been unfairly singled out, a stance that is alternately charming and annoying. Beard complains, jokes, gripes, protests and generally calls attention to her prickly adorableness throughout, and it began to grate on me after a while.

At around 200 pages the book is slight, with a lack of design and purpose that attests to a rush to get it into print while the buzz from The New Yorker was still hot. It's not that Jo Ann Beard lacks talent--she is an engaging and competent writer--but the publication of her collected autobiographical writings seems premature. Readers who come to The Boys of My Youth looking for writing of the polished, fully developed quality of "The Fourth State of Matter" will be disappointed.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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