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.
“I’m still Jo Ann, white face and dark hair,” she realizes, reeling from the news that friends of hers have been killed. So whether she notices, as a pre-teen, that the river is “the color of bourbon,” or, as an adult, observes that in the sticks “things are measured in shitloads, and every third guy you meet is named Junior,” she remains, always, Jo Ann.
Which is not to say that Beard was ever thinking about any of this (and that’s the thing about the present tense: where is the time to reflect?).(1) “I think I don’t know how to write except in the present tense,” she said in a recent interview, also explaining that if her stories don’t percolate with drama, it’s because “not a lot of major things have happened to me in my life. The stories I was interested in were stories from my past: where I came from, what it was like to grow up in Moline, Illinois, in a typical family. I just kind of backed into it.”
Another story she “sort of backed into”: the snowy November day in 1991 when a University of Iowa physics post-grad named Gang Lu ended the lives of three professors, a fellow graduate student and an administrator, while wounding still another. He finally shot and killed himself. Beard, then a graduate student herself, worked part time as an editor for a plasma-physics journal and knew the victims well. “I certainly never intended to write about that event,” she said. “I didn’t think I had anything to say about it.” What she did finally seem to say, in her sorrowful and stunning “The Fourth State of Matter,” is that time stops. The river dries up and the present tense, in a sense, is neutralized. There is finally an opportunity to reflect. When she does, at the essay’s conclusion, Beard remembers her murdered friend:
“My peer, my colleague. In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we’re in a pocket of silence. We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the Earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of silence, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.”(2)
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown, 224 pages)
Icon (Iowa City), February 1999
1 This strikes me now as a tiny bit condescending. It comes off as the big reviewer understanding the complexity of the work better than the writer.
2 This is the only book I’ve reviewed twice (for the same publication). I don’t know why my editors let me do that. I thought I had something substantially different to say. In retrospect, it seems clear that I didn’t.