Brendan's Reviews > The Boys of My Youth

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
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's review
Nov 01, 2016

it was amazing
Recommended for: William H. Gass & Eric Clapton

William H. Gass, that curmudgeonly king of American letters, proclaims with enormous exasperation that that “the perils of the present tense are pronounced.” In his 1996 essay, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” he shakes his finger like a schoolmarm and scolds, “What was once a rather rare disease has become an epidemic.” And sounding like our elders in Washington, who wonder where in the world the outrage went, he woefully concludes that “if there is an academic prose, this prose is collegiate.”


Now enter Jo Ann Beard, a Quad Cities native and graduate of the University of Iowa Program in Nonfiction Writing, whose 1998 collection, The Boys of My Youth, is gleefully, seemingly tauntingly, composed in the present tense. “Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake,” begins her essay “Cousins.” A page later: “It is five a.m. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water.” And not even a page later: “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 Beard’s writing, time splashes its way downstream, taking with it the bits and pieces of what she admits to be the “blistering, stupefying boredom” of her everyday existence. She, in turn, becomes like one of the fish she describes, who restlessly combs the depths until she discovers something interesting. Then, “the skin of the lake twitches suddenly” and her “fish springs loose into the air” and “drops back down with a flat splash.”

It’s an enticing metaphor for not simply the everydayness of our everyday lives but for the possibilities of beauty that, in our own humility, we sometimes overlook. And an unwavering faith in the moment, in the end, makes our mortality all the more uncomfortable. By the end of “Cousins,” that fish has transformed into a twisting baton, which “rises miraculously, lingers for a moment against the sun, and then drops back down,” and, finally, through the fading eyes of a dying mother, her mind muddled by morphine, becomes something of both. This time, however, it refuses to come back down.

In essay after essay of The Boys of My Youth, the fleeting becomes forever and the timeless timeful, as Beard scrunches the memories as varied and far apart as a nighttime tantrum in her crib and toking up at a Clapton concert into the infinitely tiny speck of her called now. The result? As much as any more celebrated memoirist who dwells exclusively in retrospect, Beard gives us herself in all its tantalizing particularities -- friend, daughter, cousin, colleague, wife, divorcee, incurable wiseass -- while also managing to carve out a voice, a spirit, that is unmistakably unified.

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10/12/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Brendan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brendan You won't be disappointed, Ginnie. Jo Ann is a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa (as am I), and while there, she was an editor for (of all things) a plasma physics journal. On Nov. 1, 1991--16 years ago tomorrow--a Chinese graduate student in physics murdered several of her colleagues before killing himself. Her essay about the killings is called "The Fourth State of Matter" and was first published in The New Yorker. It's brilliant and beautiful and so unbelievably sad.

I've written more about it here:

message 2: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Great review.

message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Brendan wrote: "You won't be disappointed, Ginnie. Jo Ann is a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa (as am I), and while there, she was an editor for (of all things) a plasma physic..."

Oh, that blog post was good too - I wasn't at the U of I then, but my future husband was, and I started in Jan 1992 - I think Miya Rodolfo-Sioson was still there, altho I didn't know her.

message 4: by John (new)

John Jr. Quite cleverly, you have disagreed with William Gass, at least in the case of this particular book, without directly saying so. I side with Gass in finding peril in the present tense, but your review implies that Jo Ann Beard has avoided them. Well done!

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