Jo Ann Beard
The Boys of My Youth
When Tom Andrews was 11 years old, he clapped his hands for more than 14 hours, landing himself in the Guinness Book of World Records. The choice was between hand-clapping and omelet-making, but as Andrews, a hemophiliac, explains in his memoir Codeine Diary, all he really wanted was to set a record. As Andrews was clapping, his mother recognized this impulse and confronted him. "Tell me this, Tom,'' she said, "are you doing this for God's glory or for yours?"
Hemophilia provides an apt subject for a memoir, as the compulsive chronicling of a life represents something of a slow, steady bleed. Another metaphor for the memoir might be masturbation, though, and the question that Andrews's mother asks cuts to heart of whether the author is the type to impress readers with autobiographical art or pleasure himself with self-aggrandizement.
Codeine Diary began as a journal kept during an extensive hospitalization; between codeine hazes, the author reflects on his erstwhile record, his brother's death of kidney disease, and his own daredevil efforts to transcend illness. Unfortunately, Andrews's journal is bookended by indulgent philosophical musings that leave little possibility for empathy. Trying to get home after an accident, Andrews wonders, "Am I resorting to old habits? Will I get through the familiar process--denial followed by a recognition of my vulnerability and an urgent acceptance that I need help--with each new bleed?" In passages like this, the author leeches the emotional immediacy out of his anxiety.
This inclination to overanalyze is matched by Andrews's apparent desire to pepper his prose with tedious explications of such irrelevancies as Fermat's Last Theorem and Zeno's Paradox. Many of these references seem designed to convey Andrews's intellect more than any particular meaning; at the mathematical review he edits, Andrews stares at theorems "like Robert Benchley hiding his volumes of Proust and Joyce from his New Yorker colleagues (who let him know he was supposed to urbanely savage the pretension of such writers, not admire them)."
Andrews has published two books of poetry, and while much of this title reads like a mathematical text, he occasionally lets his poetic voice escape. Here, in a hospital night "as quiet as the inside of a brick," he suffers "this fierce inward stalking of patience." These sections of Codeine Diary are fresh and deeply felt, but we've been through too much pedantic prose; our enthusiasm has flatlined pages ago.
IN JO ANN Beard's collection of autobiographical essays, The Boys of My Youth, the self-serving ego is hard to find. The book, Beard's first, contains its share of injuries; a theme that pervades the volume is the many deaths of innocence throughout a life, and the essays constantly whisper loss. With one exception, none of Beard's pains are new. The stories--the father's struggle with alcoholism, the boy-obsessed adolescence, and the perils of being newly single at 40--have been covered before, yet Beard's familiar, inviting style makes her accounts seem fresh and personal. "We're in the sticks," Beard writes in one passage. "Way out here things are measured in shitloads and every third guy you meet is named Junior."
The pivotal moment in Beard's life is narrated in an essay called "The Fourth State of Matter." Beard leaves work at her University of Iowa office just before a disgruntled grad student walks in and opens fire, killing six of her colleagues. The assassin then, she writes, "walks into a room, takes off his coat, folds it carefully and puts it over the back of his chair. Checks his watch; 12 minutes since it began. Places the barrel against his right temple. Fires."
Beard, in an interview with Mirabella, worries about the ethical complications of chronicling such a lurid experience. "The reason I made it is because I wrote a story with six murders in it," she says. "I'm riding to success on the backs of six dead people." But, in fact, Beard gives the incident too much credit. This essay is remarkable less for its shock value than for its depth; the murders appear 15 pages into a narrative filled with careful details portraying a life already on the brink.
Beard comes home each day to a dying collie and to frantic messages on her machine from her husband who has left her. "Please? I think I might be freaking out," he says. "Am I making a mistake? Jo?" Beard's talent here is for translating such mistakes into a measured portrayal of upheaval and crisis. The tragedy grounds us, but it is Beard herself who ultimately compels.