The Master of the Almost-Factual Essay

Jo Ann Beard's stunning debut limns the gray area between fact and memory.

For a couple of months now, my friends and I have been passing around a copy of The Best American Essays 1997. With every handoff we recommend a couple of favorites and then add: "But you must read 'The Fourth State of Matter.'" To their questioning faces we reply, "Can't explain. Just read it." The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown, $22.95) "The Fourth State of Matter" was written by Jo Ann Beard, an editor at a scholarly sociological journal in Ithaca, New York, whose own writing has nothing to do with scholarly sociological journals. "The Fourth State" begins as a quiet account of her pet collie's death, then absolutely explodes halfway through. The dog died in November 1991, when Beard worked as an editor for a space-physics journal at the University of Iowa. And there's a point, about 11 pages in, when she describes the increasingly erratic behavior of a physics graduate student, where you get this horrible sinking feeling and think, Wasn't there a big news story about a physics grad student about six years ago in Iowa.... And you keep reading and sinking because there was a grad student at the University of Iowa who went crazy or evil or maybe both and murdered five people before killing himself, and Beard worked with them all. She had gone home early that day. "I tell the white face in the mirror that Gang Lu [the grad student] did this, wrecked everything and murdered all those people," Beard writes. "It seems as ludicrous as everything else. I can't get my mind to work right. I'm still operating on yesterday's facts; today hasn't jelled yet. 'It's a good thing none of this happened,' I say to my face." It's a stunning piece of writing: unsensationalistic, gripping, and devastating. Beard finds that the truth about violent death—one that's rarely understood in a culture fascinated with bloody acts—is simple: Nothing comes of this but loss. "The Fourth State of Matter," now appears as part of Beard's essay collection, The Boys of My Youth. It's a strange book, a memoir written in the form of discrete essays (many of which concern Beard's childhood) with a dash of fiction thrown in. Some characters are composites, others are given fictitious names. Beard stopped in town for a reading last week, and I asked her about the book and the "Fourth State" essay. "I didn't write about [the murders] until I moved to Ithaca three years ago," she said. "I had to leave Iowa City; the town was full of ghosts and pain for me. Originally I was going to write an essay about my dying dog. Which for me is fun—it was something I really looked forward to. And then I realized I couldn't write about her without writing about her death, and I couldn't write about her death without putting it in the context of what else was occurring in my life at the time. So I backed into writing about the murders. "A friend from Iowa City called me one day and said, 'How's your dog essay coming along?' And I said, 'I'm not sure, but Chris Goertz [Beard's friend and colleague, who was among the victims] is in the essay, and I have a feeling that his presence means this might be about the murders.' And she said, 'Well then you just write it.' "And, you know, I couldn't do it justice. But there is no justice."

 
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