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The Boys of My Youth

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Author: Jo Ann Beard
First Published: 1997, by Little, Brown

This is one of those books that comes along once in a lifetime. It’s so special that as soon as I finished it, I immediately sent a copy to Elizabeth Quinlan, my reading compatriot and the daughter of the woman who brought this reading sickness upon me in the first place. Like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Boys of My Youth has a voice that is as astounding as it is unique. I’ll let Ms. Beard speak for herself:

Here’s one of my preverbal memories: I’m very little and I’m behind bars, like a baby monkey in a cage. My parents have just put me to bed in a room with bright yellow walls. This is fine with me because in my crib there are various companions—the satin edge of my blue blanket, the chewable plastic circle that hangs down almost to mouth-level on a piece of green cord, and a boy doll named Hal with blue eyes and lickable hands and feet made of vinyl. At this point in my life, I love Hal, and the satin borders of blankets better than any of the humans I know. My mother puts Hal up next to my head as soon as I lie down, which is exactly where I don’t want him. I smack him in the face.

The Boys of My Youth is a collection of non-fiction stories that read like fiction. They jump around to different parts of the author’s life, and together form a kind of memoir. But the book defies categorization, as does Beard’s writing.

One of the things I find most compelling about Beard is her ability to push the boundaries of metaphor and meaning. In this paragraph for example, she juxtaposes an unlikely host of nouns and verbs that give the passage a life of its own:

It is nine o’clock on Saturday night, the sky is black and glittering with pinholes, old trees are bent down over the highway. In the dark field behind, the corn gathers its strength, grows an in inch in silence, then stops to rest. Next to the highway, screened in vegetation, a deer with muscular ears and glamorous eyes, stands waiting to spring out from the wings into the next moving spotlight. The asphalt sighs in anticipation.

The anthropomorphizing of the trees and the corn is just magical. And nearly every sentence in this autobiographical collection, to me at least, sparkles like one of those night-time pinholes.

“The Fourth State of Matter,” first published in The New Yorker in June of 1996, is a grim retelling of Beard’s early departure from work on a day that a graduate student came into her building at the University of Iowa and gunned down the members of the Physics Department. (“At the end of the hallway are the double doors leading to the rest of my life. I push them open and walk through.”) But the story is also about her dying collie, the squirrels that have taken up residence in the spare bedroom upstairs, and a husband who has left her. Only Beard could weave these disparate parts together with such dexterity.

The piece created a small stir when it first appeared,” wrote Tai Moses in a review for metroactive.com. “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.” 

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