The voice that emerges from Jo Ann Beard's collection of autobiographical essays is comfortable with itself, and it puts the reader at ease, too. Beard is companionable, casual, serious about the things that matter without ever being self-serious, sharp without being cruel, compassionate without going soft. She accomplishes something with the personal essay that's similar to what Lee Smith or Jill McCorkle do in their fiction. Reading "The Boys of My Youth" is like going to a party or a barbecue where you hardly know a soul and winding up spending the entire time having a great conversation with someone you just met.
We've become used to memoirs that are public demonstrations: half self-pity, half flagellation. But saying that Beard's own life is her best subject does not mean that it is her only subject. Encountering material that you know could have fallen into the leaden style of recent memoirs -- her father's alcoholism and a horrible episode where Beard's co-workers at a science magazine in Iowa were killed by another co-worker (she had left work early that day to nurse her ailing collie) -- makes you grateful for the matter-of-factness of her approach. Beard's dad's drinking is simply part of her childhood; she sums up the effect of the sudden intrusion of violence by calling the day of the shooting "the last day of the first part of my life."
But those episodes are anomalies. Beard is just as affecting, just as evocative, on the ordinary things that make up the bulk of the book, childhood as well as adulthood. What marks "The Boys of My Youth" as an exchange between reader and author is the way that Beard's ability to evoke the textures of her scenes works on you to unlock your own memories. Here she is writing about a night when she and her sister have been left home by themselves: "My book has me terrified. I want a bottle of pop really bad but it's in the refrigerator. I can picture it in there keeping a severed head company, blood dripping, pooling up on the Tupperware containers, seeping into the vegetable bin. My mother should watch me better and not let me read books like this, but if I do, my sister should go out to the refrigerator during a commercial and get my pop for me." That kind of evocation is exactly why we refer to the talents of certain writers as gifts.