by Amy Day Wilkinson
In June 1996, a prose piece titled “The Fourth State of Matter” appeared in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, in the “Personal History” section of the magazine. This memoir, which would prove career changing for its author, Jo Ann Beard, had at its center details of a mass shooting five years earlier at the University of Iowa: a disillusioned physics graduate student had killed six professors and administrators in the department before taking his own life. At the time, Beard worked in the physics department as managing editor of a “space-physics monthly.” The morning of the shooting, she’d been in the office she shared with the journal’s editor, her friend, Christoph Goertz. In the office was a chalkboard Beard drew on regularly, and that morning she’d drawn a picture of her terminally ill collie. Before heading home, Beard gave the dog eyes and a bone, additions Goertz commented on, “kindly.” Then Beard walked out of the office, a little earlier than usual—right past the murderer, with his guns in his pockets, suicide note in hand—on her way through “the double doors leading to the rest of [her] life.” Shortly thereafter, Christoph Goertz and five others were shot dead.
All of these details are straight from Beard’s life, which would lead one to classify “The Fourth State of Matter” as nonfiction. Yet Bill Buford, editor of The New Yorker at the time, chose to publish it in the fiction issue. Internet chatter about genre ensued, with Gary Kamiya of Salon claiming that making an event like a university shooting part of someone’s personal narrative was causing it to be “shrunk down” and Buford defending his decision to publish it in the fiction issue on the basis of its artistry.
“The Fourth State of Matter” exemplifies this artistry in more ways than one. There are the recurring chalkboard drawings, for example: the previously mentioned drawing of the terminally ill collie and, before that, on a day preceding the shooting, there’s a chalk rendering drawn by Beard and Goertz together. “I drew the man and Chris framed him, using brown chalk and a straightedge,” Beard tells us.
As with all good details, these chalk images have more than one function. They help us imagine the setting, an old-fashioned academic office, while at the same time they develop characters: Beard is a doodler; she and Goertz have a playful relationship. Then there’s the figurative language, which is lovely, precise, and part of Beard’s intricate patterning. In the third paragraph, Beard writes, “The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a chalkboard,” a simile that made me pause because of its exact rightness. This image comes pages before the actual office chalkboards appear—the one that Beard drew pictures on, and this second one, in another slain colleague’s office:
Unimaginable, really, that in less than two months from now one of his colleagues from abroad, a woman with delicate, birdlike features, will appear at the door to my office and identify herself as a friend of Bob’s. When she asks, I take her down the hall to the room with the long table and then to his empty office. I do this without saying anything because there’s nothing to say, and she takes it all in with small, serious nods until the moment she sees his blackboard covered with scribbles and arrows and equations. At that point her face loosens and she starts to cry in long ragged sobs. An hour later I go back and the office is empty. When I erase the blackboard finally, I can see where she laid her hands carefully, where the numbers are ghostly and blurred.
Maybe, when it comes to genre, we can leave it at this: Beard works in a space between genres. Her essays have appeared alongside the best fiction, from the “Fourth State of Matter” all the way back to her very first publication, an essay about a trip, which appeared in Story. More recently, in her novel, In Zanesville (2011), there’s a sly reference to Little Women, making it clear that, like the author, the novel’s unnamed narrator is called Jo:
I realize who she reminds me of—Amy in Little Women. Impetuous, ringletty, and perhaps not too bright, but a relief after the fervency of her sisters. She was the one I most wanted to be, even though I had the same name as another. Little Amy March grew up while no one was looking, wandered away from wherever it was they lived, and became an artist, while the one named after me had to stay and be in a worse book later.
Like Amy March, Beard is an artist. She works on a small canvas, with marvelous exactness and an almost morbidly dry humor. Take her reference, in the preface to her essay collection, The Boys of My Youth(1998), to her mother talking and “smoking the same cigarette she’d been smoking for thirty years.” It might seem like just playful hyperbole, if Beard’s mother didn’t quietly chain-smoke in many essays, eventually dying of cancer. For the reader, the image of a single cigarette lasting thirty years is at once delightful and darkly affecting.
Much of Beard’s work is set in the Midwest, in small-town Illinois, where she grew up, and Iowa City, where she lived for years. Beard earned both a BFA and an MFA from the University of Iowa. As an undergraduate she studied painting, until, as she said in a 2011 interview in BOMB Magazine, “I took a writing class and realized there was another way I could express myself that would work out better for me.” At the time, Beard was in her early 30s.
It would take until Beard was in her early 40s for her first book to be published. The Boys of My Youth (1998) consists of thirteen essays, ranging from the two-page “In the Current” to the aforementioned fifty-six-page title essay, “The Boys of My Youth.” In the former, Beard recalls her ten-year-old self seeing three teenagers almost drown and feeling, more than anything, embarrassed to have been noticed by teenagers. The latter weaves together Beard’s memories of teenage crushes, adolescent pranks, and high school parties with later-life material about spousal abandonment, divorce, and dating.
Binding this material together is a decades-spanning friendship. In high school, Beard and her best friend Elizabeth prank call and toilet paper boys’ houses. Years later, Elizabeth talks the adult Beard—who’s run away from Iowa, her husband, and a failing marriage—through a breakdown. Beard, in “Key-something” Florida, calls Elizabeth in Chicago: “Her voice has taken on a soothing, reassuring tone I’ve never heard her use before. It makes me feel like crying.”
There are loads of wonderful phone calls in Beard’s work. At a Yaddo residency, Beard spends a lot of time in a phone booth, doodling (“I draw a picture of a pit bull”), sneaking cigarettes, and talking to Elizabeth. At one point, Elizabeth asks, “They clean your room and cook your meals so you can write about Stuart Garcia?” Finally, “The Boys of My Youth” closes with a visit from Elizabeth. She and Beard are together for a weekend: “We try on each other’s clothes and paint our toenails maroon.” They’re together when a new guy calls, a blond poet Beard maybe likes, but Beard doesn’t answer the phone. Instead, the friends stand together in the living room listening to the message.
“The Boys of My Youth” is really far less about boys than it is about one very important girl of Beard’s youth and beyond. A female friendship is also at the center of Beard’s second book, a novel, In Zanesville. Originally conceived of as a young adult novel, published ultimately as adult fiction, In Zanesville tells the story of a few dramatic months in the lives of two fourteen-year-old girls, friends so close that Beard often represents their consciousness as shared, using the first-person plural. Here, for example, is the novel’s opening paragraph:
We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job.
A little later, the narrator’s mom asks, “Don’t you two ever get sick of each other?”
The story takes place in 1970s small-town Illinois. It’s broken into three sections with distinct but related plots: a seriously botched babysitting job (the house catches on fire) and some secretly tended, sick kittens; a fabricated crush that turns into an actual crush that turns into an opportunity for the narrator to get kissed (mission aborted); and the night the narrator gets left behind when ten other girls and boys pair up and walk off into the night. Among the newly formed couples is the best friend, Felicia, formerly part of the “we,” now operating very much on her own, who gives the narrator a heart-rending look: “I’ve never seen that look on Felicia’s face before, like she wished I would disappear. It’s like you’re a balloon and somebody just lets go.” Much of what follows is the fallout from that incident.
There are so many remarkable things about In Zanesville, but what I think of often is the way Beard gets the teenage life so exactly right:
Pick up the phone, is all. Go back to being who you were before everything became this. Nothing happened! You were just at a party and boys chose everyone else, and your best friend stared at you with flat eyes and you walked in the woods and talked to a grandmother. Nothing happened, and yet it feels like something did, because things aren’t the way they were before. It’s like when you come home and your mother has changed the furniture around, and for one instant it’s like you’ve entered the next dimension over: it’s your living room but it’s not your living room. That’s how this feels, like if you tried to sit down, you might find out that the chair is over there.
In the decade between deciding to write and publishing her first collection of essays, Beard supported herself with day jobs. When asked more specifically, in a 2011 interview at The Days of Yore, what kind of jobs, Beard replied, “Secretary and glorified secretary. For a while in my early forties I had a job stapling. It was actually fun but then it started bothering my back.” We see, though, by way of her essays, that in the midst of whatever else was happening, Beard was working on—often struggling with—writing. In “Out There,” Beard says, “I sat on my haunches in Key West for four weeks, writing and seething and striking up conversations with strangers.” In “The Fourth State of Matter,” she writes, “Chris lets me work an erratic, eccentric schedule, which gives me time to pursue my nonexistent writing career.” In “The Boys of My Youth,” during a phone conversation from Yaddo with Elizabeth, Beard says, “I hate it here; why did I come here? All there is to do is write.” And Elizabeth reminds her, “You always go through this.”
Which is to say that, like any artist worth spending time with, Beard puts in the hours. And for Beard, it’s paid off. In 1997, she received a Whiting Foundation Award; in 2005, a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. In a January 2013 New York Times Sunday Book Review piece, the writer and critic Francine Prose included Beard’s In Zanesville in a short list of books she tells friends they must read.
On a recent Tuesday night in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at the wonderful Community Bookstore, the essays book club gathered to discuss what many writers and readers of nonfiction consider an indispensable, genre-defining collection, The Boys of My Youth. The book club moderator led the discussion using the well-worn paperback edition she’d read in college. One of the essays, she told us, is the first piece of reading she assigns in her nonfiction classes. Everyone there agreed that the author takes on hard truths fearlessly, that she writes beautiful sentences, that she makes readers laugh and then cry without asking us to do either. An adjective that came up often was precise.
At the book club, it didn’t matter that Beard’s collection was first published sixteen years ago, in 1998. Later editions have different cover images, different author photos. The 2011 edition carries the subtitle “Autobiographical Essays,” which wasn’t there in 1998. But in all the important ways, the essays are as relevant, timely, startling, and affecting now as they were when they first appeared.
Like the other women at the book club, I read favorite sentences out loud, like this one from “Coyotes”: “I love dogs better than anything else on earth, next to cigarettes and a couple of people.” I delighted in talking about especially affecting moments, as in “Cousins,” when Beard writes about her aunt guiltily lighting up in her dying sister’s hospital room. “They better not catch me doing this,” the aunt says, and then, Beard writes:
The cigarette trembles slightly in her long fingers and her eyes find the ceiling, then the floor, then the window. She adjusts the belt on her suit, a soft green knit tunic over pants, with silver buttons and a patterned scarf at the neck. She’s sitting in an orange plastic chair.
The fidgeting and avoiding eye contact are telling details, and the orange chair is great; but the thing I love, the part that moves me the most, comes in the next paragraph, when Beard’s dying mother bums a drag:
She takes a puff from my aunt’s cigarette and exhales slowly, making professional smoke rings. “Now I’m corrupted,” she says dryly.
As we were putting on our coats, packing up to leave the bookstore and walk home, several people thanked the moderator for selecting Jo Ann Beard. One woman said, “I’m so happy to know about this writer.” Yes, I thought. So am I.
Amy Day Wilkinson’s fiction has recently appeared in Jabberwock Review and Elm Leaves Journal. She teaches writing at NYU and lives in Brooklyn with her family.