Collected Works 
by Jo Ann Beard.
Serpent’s Tail, 439 pp., £17.99, August 2023, 978 1 80081 788 3
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by Jo Ann Beard.
Serpent’s Tail, 79 pp., £10, August 2023, 978 1 80081 785 2
Show More
Show More

Jo Ann Beard’sFestival Days appeared in 2021; The Boys of My Youth in 1998. Republished together as her Collected Works (the book excludes her 2011 novel In Zanesville), they register the two-decade gap between the younger writer who mined her past for stories that read like memoir, and the older one who delves into the lives of others for essays that read like fiction. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Whatever happened in the interim?

Festival Days is the more various collection – mixing story, reportage, craft talk, first person, third person – and this remarkable later work makes up the first half of the Collected. Beard (born in 1955 in Illinois) writes slowly. She is a cunning craftswoman who draws circles and parallels across time, embedding patterns that unite seemingly disparate tales. In the opening piece, ‘Last Night’, an elderly dog, Sheba, turns into a dervish: ‘She began turning in circles and couldn’t stop. In my kitchen, in my car, and then in an examining room at the vet’s office.’ Beard quotes Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ – ‘turning and turning in the widening gyre’ – and more than four hundred pages later, as the book draws to a close, we meet young Sheba in an earlier part of the narrator’s life.

It’s a daunting move, opening a collection with a pet’s death – ‘I’d always known I’d have to live without her someday; I just hadn’t known it would be tomorrow’ – but it only gets grimmer, in a euphoric way, from there. The narrator who presides over most of the book is rueful, plaintive, with a Midwestern friendliness in tension with her Midwestern tact; a woman who is divorced, childless and dependent on the kindness of friends and neighbours. She is a writer uprooted by her profession (and probably divorced on account of her profession too), who closely observes suffering in the natural world, of which the human realm is a subset. Often this narrator is unnamed, but sometimes she is called Jo, or Joan, or Jo Ann.

Beard, the essayist who writes like a novelist, applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with her fiction while she had an admin job at the university; she kept being rejected until she switched tack and submitted her work to the non-fiction programme instead. She doesn’t recount this in her author’s note, but remarks that ‘I became an essayist by default. My first love was poetry, my second love was fiction and my third and lasting love was the essay.’ Beard expresses gratitude to her editors at the now defunct Tin House for publishing her pieces ‘without undue fretting over genre’. She now teaches creative non-fiction at Sarah Lawrence College but in interviews she ducks that label too.

‘Werner’, the piece that follows ‘Last Night’, is based on an incident that made the news in New York City in 1991. Werner Hoeflich wakes in the middle of the night on the fifth floor of a burning apartment block and is confronted with a choice – either die in the flames or catapult headfirst across an airshaft through the closed window of the building opposite. (It so happens he was a competitive gymnast in college, but that was some time ago.) He survives. Gouged by broken glass, and with seared lungs, his blood saturated with carbon monoxide, he staggers through an unfamiliar apartment and joins the exodus down the stairwell. Eventually he makes it to a hospital and endures endless waiting on a gurney, ‘congealing’.

The boundary between emergency and banality dissolves in Beard’s treatment. She tells the story through a close third person, shadowing Hoeflich’s interior life to such a degree that we learn he once saw a parakeet in a tree on his block: ‘The bird had sharpened both sides of its beak on the branch and then made a veering, panicky flight to a windowsill far above.’ The minutes spent in Werner’s head as he assesses his situation in the burning building slow down mercilessly; the hours spent in his head in the hospital stretch with unbearable tedium. Beard deploys the verisimilitude of the reporter and the similes of a poet: ‘A Filipina woman in pink scrubs, blurry and beautiful, with coral nail polish as flawless as the finish on a new car’; ‘His lungs felt full and frightening in his chest, like cow udders.’ And then there are the breakout glimpses into other circles of hell:

‘Whores,’ a man said to the ceiling. ‘Whoring whores.’

The man was covered in gauze and a sheet; nothing but a blackened forearm and a pale horned foot were visible …

‘Fuck,’ the man said intently through his teeth. ‘Fucking fuck.’

‘He’s a homeless gentleman,’ the nurse confided, ‘set on fire by a group of kids.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Werner said.

‘That’s OK,’ the nurse said automatically.

Beard conducted extensive interviews with Hoeflich before writing the story. She did something similar for Cheri, her tour de force, first published in Tin House in 2002, and later collected in Festival Days. (It has now been republished separately as a slim volume.) Cheri Tremble, who killed herself in 1997 ‘with the assistance of Dr Jack Kevorkian’ (that’s the cloaking phrase) was obviously not available for collaboration. Instead Beard talked to her friends and family, including her two daughters, Sarah and Katy, in order to establish as clearly as possible the circumstances under which Tremble died. The gruesome and unremarkable journey from her initial mammogram, through lumpectomy and chemotherapy, to a subsequent mammogram resulting in a mastectomy and more chemotherapy, and finally to botched reconstructive surgery that left Cheri with nerve damage – the hospital is ‘unwilling even to diagnose the problem, let alone treat it’ – would wipe most of us out, not least financially. Tremble worked as a train conductor on Amtrak, punching tickets along the East Coast corridor; she lost her job, benefits and pension in the wake of her illness. She moved from Brooklyn to Iowa to be near her childhood friend Linda, and Linda’s husband, Wayne, who along with her daughters provided the care that saw her through her terminal diagnosis and final van ride to Dr Kevorkian’s house in Michigan.

Presumably Hoeflich either told Beard about the parakeet he once saw on his block, or approved of it as an invented detail. Tremble didn’t have that option. Beard mentions in her author’s note that while Cheri’s ‘external details’ were confirmed in interviews, ‘internal details – her thoughts, her memories and what occurred after her loved ones saw her for the last time – are imagined.’ The essay opens uncannily, on a memory or dream from childhood: two boys on bicycles hold a snake between them as they pedal. ‘This is the way Cheri’s life is passing in front of her eyes, in random unrelated glimpses, one or two a day.’ Not long before she travels to meet Dr Kevorkian, she sees a utility worker up a telephone pole outside her window, whose ‘sprig of snipped wire falls through the air to the grass below’. This image harks back to ‘Werner’; as the fire begins, ‘a sprig of cloth-wrapped wire sizzled and then opened, like a blossom.’

It took Beard two years to write Cheri. ‘People would say: “God, that is so depressing. Aren’t you writing about someone dying?” And I would say: “It’s not depressing at all. It’s exciting. It is totally exciting.” But I meant the process – the process was exciting.’ That sounds vampiric. But it would have been worse to fictionalise it: ‘I care that Cheri was a real person, the mother of an acquaintance, that she came to her decision in a certain way. I care about somebody who had to grapple with the prospect of dying and figure it out.’

Beard uses the word ‘permeable’ to describe the membrane between fiction and non-fiction; it also serves to evoke the membrane between her and other women. What Beard is aiming for isn’t so much creative licence as a deep identification between the author and her subject. Cheri may remind her of the women she grew up with: working-class women, perhaps without the protection of husbands; women who generally rely on other women. Beard’s essay feels like a bravura attempt to rescue Cheri from the loneliness of her death. The pieces in The Boys of My Youth reveal that Beard’s mother died of cancer in middle age. Every subsequent loss is an echo of it: the dogs, the divorce, the friends picked off by violence or disease.

‘Festival Days’, the concluding, eponymous piece in the later collection, also memorialises a middle-aged woman, Kathy, who dies of cancer. Kathy, Emma and the narrator, Jo, take a final trip together to India. Jo is about to be dumped by the man she loves, and thoughts of him intrude bitterly amid the other atrocities: ‘the staggering cows, the children running through traffic with their hands out, the seemingly whole litter of puppies that had been driven over on the road … the mother dog standing just off to the side, her nipples hanging down like sorrow, her face impassive’.

The braiding of animal suffering with women’s suffering runs deep. Violence and suffering are everywhere, lying in wait for us – this is the natural order of things. In ‘The Tomb of Wrestling’, one of the pieces Beard identifies as fiction (even though the narrator’s name is Joan and the setting echoes that of her other essays), a stranger invades the home of a woman living alone and almost kills her. Interwoven with the unbearably prolonged account of hand-to-hand combat are almost serene minor plots involving animals going about their business: dogs stalking a possum, a squirrel, a groundhog; a heron spearing a frog; a coyote gnawing a deer bone.

Violence is a circle, a cycle, our circumference. Just when we’re embracing the possibility that the attacker is going to get his brains bludgeoned by the woman he has violated, Beard cuts to his point of view:

His mother had been fed up with him before he was even born, according to the legend, pounding on her own stomach wherever he kicked, Whac-A-Mole style …Apparently he crawled overtop one of her magazines and tore the pages and she rolled it up and whipped him with it until he ended up living elsewhere.

I moved out when I was one, he used to tell people.

A killer move on Beard’s part – but not the one we were expecting.

The gap between Beard’s two collections resembles the gap between buildings that Werner hurtles himself across; traversing an abyss is the way she tests her mettle. One of the best pieces in Festival Days is a masterpiece of agnosticism called ‘Maybe It Happened’. It’s about the lacunae in knowledge that we live with – concerning our childhoods, our origins, our loved ones – and it doesn’t offer a resolution, but its power is such that you can’t just read it once; you will double back to it, compelled by its central void.

Beard was a managing editor at the quarterly journal of the University of Iowa physics department. She had gone home early on 1 November 1991, the day a disgruntled graduate student pulled a gun at a meeting of the space plasma physics research group and shot his supervisor and two other members of his dissertation committee as well as a fellow student, his former roommate. His rampage through two campus buildings ended with five people dead and one left quadriplegic. He turned the gun on himself before he could be taken into custody. Beard knew the perpetrator and most of the victims. A few years after the incident she published ‘The Fourth State of Matter’, which circles around the events of that day, and it made her name – as much for its subtle approach as for its sensational appeal. It first appeared in the New Yorker, was widely anthologised, and provides ballast to The Boys of My Youth. It’s like nothing else in that book. In retrospect, it seems to be a turning point in Beard’s writing, anticipating ‘Werner’ and Cheri. ‘It’s 1 November 1991,’ she writes in the piece, ‘the last day of the first part of my life.’

‘The Fourth State of Matter’ reads like a Lorrie Moore story. There’s the Midwestern suburban ennui: squirrels in the attic, ageing dogs, impending divorce. There are the wisecracks: ‘I wish my dog was out tearing up the town and my husband was home peeing on a blanket.’ Beard presents her relationship with Chris Goetz, her boss, as a workplace screwball comedy. ‘“Why are you here when there’s no work to do?” he asks. “I’m hiding from my life, what else,” I tell him.’ Sketching profiles of the regulars in the department, Beard zooms in on the future shooter, first person vanishing into third:

Gang Lu looks around the room idly with expressionless eyes. He’s sick of physics and sick of the buffoons who practise it. The tall glacial German, Chris, who tells him what to do; the crass idiot Bob who talks to him like he is a dog; the student Shan whose ideas about plasma physics are treated with reverence and praised at every meeting. The woman who puts her feet on the desk and dismisses him with her eyes.

That would be Beard herself. ‘He stares at each person in turn, trying to gauge how much respect each of them has for him. One by one. Behind black-rimmed glasses, he counts with his eyes. In each case the verdict is clear: not enough.’

As the news arrives with agonising slowness, false hope and rumour drip-dripping from the television and round-robin phone calls, the narrator realises that she has narrowly escaped death, and her close colleague Chris didn’t. Still, the collie is declining fast, the divorce is underway. The essay ends with a series of small aftershocks, false endings, a slow fade. Beard provides us with one of the details missing from the official reports: ‘The final victim is Chris’s mother, who will weather it all with a dignified face and an erect spine, then return to Germany and kill herself without further words or fanfare.’ Later, Beard sees a vision in the cold November sky: ‘My mother floats past in a hospital gown, trailing tubes.’

Without ‘The Fourth State of Matter’, The Boys of My Youth would be a charming, winsome collection – shot through with melancholy, occasional menace – of stories about girls, sisters, cousins, mothers in mid- century America. Beard shares seriocomic territory not only with Moore, but with Lucia Berlin, Joy Williams and Grace Paley. The problem with charm, as Angela Carter wrote in a piece about Paley in these pages, is that it can be cloying (LRB, 17 April 1980). ‘You’re helping someone out for once,’ a mother says to her grown son. A little girl calls her aunt on the phone – ‘My mom needs you right now’ – and the aunt is there in twenty minutes. Good people have pets and love them. But did ‘Werner’ really have to pivot on his failed attempt to rescue his cat named ‘Two’?

If there’s a single haloed precursor behind Beard’s abysm-haunted later work, it may be Annie Dillard, who made an indelible impression on her generation with books such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm and Teaching a Stone to Talk, but whose reputation has fallen into decline. Dillard’s meditations on spiritual hunger and theodicy are at odds with the age, yet I have seen writers who would never entertain an upper-case ‘God’ in their own work melt at the mention of her name. In a short piece called ‘Close’, which is fashioned as a kind of craft talk, Beard says that she often returns to Dillard’s essay ‘The Death of a Moth’, a homage to Virginia Woolf. For those of us left cold by the pervasiveness of autofiction – and its ubiquitous references to prime real estate, cuisine and kink – Dillard persists as a distant supernova in a sub-zero vacuum: once upon a time, essayists sought the sublime. Jo Ann Beard keeps the taper lit, her compass set to first and last things. Yet, unlike Dillard, her forte is other people. Her heart is (relentlessly) in the right place.

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Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

Ange Mlinko, writing about Jo Ann Beard, concludes with a mention of Annie Dillard, a ‘distant supernova in a sub-zero vacuum’ and suggests that Dillard’s subject is the ‘sublime’, rather than ‘other people’ (LRB, 21 March). She doesn’t mention Dillard’s novel The Living (1992), a complex frontier story about the settlement of Puget Sound in the late 19th century. It’s brimming with all kinds of ‘other people’, including a monstrous villain called Burl Obenchain, who lives in a tree trunk with a puncheon floor; Hump Talem, chief of the Nooksack; and Tommy Cahoon, a scalped Pullman conductor. It’s true, though, that it does end with the words: ‘He judged the instant and let go; he flung himself loose into the stars.’

Penny Collier
Bonsall, Derbyshire

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