The Boys of My Youth

by Jo Ann Beard

(Back Bay Books)

M ost people with a rabid following don't deserve it. But writer Jo Ann Beard deserves legions more than her little army of faithful readers, each of whom will talk wild-eyed and at length about her self-effacing wit, and dead-on observations of the wondrous absurdity of daily life. The Boys of My Youth, published in 1998, is Beard's first and only collection of essays.

Beard's writing is rich with off-kilter humor and startling moments of humanity. In "The Fourth State of Matter," first published in the New Yorker, she details University of Iowa's darkest hour--a 1991 mass-murder/suicide. Disappointed by America and his program, physics graduate student Gang Lu shot and killed five of his professors, critically injured an administrator and a student assistant, then shot himself. At the time, Beard edited the college's physics journal, and worked alongside these professors. But that Friday afternoon she'd left early, only ten minutes before the rampage began. In examining this horrible event, Beard includes Gang Lu's letters to his sister in China, which complicates and deepens a shocking, sad story.

Jo Ann Beard is drawn to horror and grief (two summers ago Tin House published her devastating essay about Cheri Trimble, Jack Kevorkian's 72nd patient), but is pulled equally toward hope and wild joyrides through midnight roads, headlights off, music up. She's bitingly funny, especially in her clear-eyed observations of people she knows best--her cousin, her mother, and her ridiculous ex-husband who has become a politician in their small town. The more successful he becomes, the less he loves her. He practices his smile in the mirror and calls to get reassurance that leaving her was the right thing. As readers we laugh and roll our eyes, but see how she suffers, still, and see how the loss has shaped and deepened her insights.

The overused words that describe this book (sad, funny, horrific, haunting) are apt, and if you're susceptible to the pull of such adjectives, you too may become one of Beard's rabid followers. Don't be afraid; this is a book to treasure. ERIN ERGENBRIGHT