Las Vegas has nothing to fear from Zanesville, Illinois. Distinguished primarily as the “farm-implement capital of the world,” the latter was a solid place to raise a family in the 1970s, Jo Ann Beard reveals in her reflective and nearly autobiographical novel, In Zanesville. Solid, but not necessarily sedate: The town name’s similarity to “Insanesville” seems divinely ordained to a pair of teenage girls wondering how everyone around them came to be so strange.
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The novel’s 14-year-old narrator — mostly unidentified, though it’s implied her name is Jo, like the author’s — possesses an unpretty face ("No matter how I tilt my head," she laments, "everything is off-kilter") but enough imagination to create her own fun. She and her best friend, Felicia (or "Flea"), traipse around Zanesville gathering up lost kittens, babysitting pyromaniacal children, feigning crushes on the boys who sit near them in detention and navigating a quagmire of high school girl cliques.
Given that this is not a plot-driven novel, it’s no spoiler to say that everything works out, for the most part, in the end. As the author did in her previous book, The Boys of My Youth (1998), Beard delivers a series of vignettes about growing up poor and a little bit wild in the Midwest. And if you had to spend your teen years in Zaney-town, it becomes clear, you’d want Beard there to keep you company: Intimate and engaging, she writes as if she’s leaning forward to whisper a bit of hot gossip in the reader’s ear. “We thought that guy was going to kiss you,” Flea tells the narrator, both of them in a tizzy. “Right there in the bleachers, in front of God and everyone.”
The girls’ hyperventilating over these near encounters is diverting — often literally so, in that it deflects attention from the book’s real heroine, the narrator’s mother. Nameless as well, though clearly reminiscent of Beard’s own mother as described in Boys, she is the book’s most complex character, and its most interesting. One of those women who knows “something about everything, although it’s true that the answers are never that great,” she has a feckless drunk husband, a crappy job, two insolent teenage daughters who create their own curfews while eating Jell-O instead of dinner, and a son who spends most of his time under a blanket tent, plotting battle moves against enemies only he can see.
She’s not a bad mom, though. She prods her children for information about their lives — and the lives of others, grilling them on what Patti Michael’s grandmother’s house looks like inside, with its chandelier and dimmer-switch lights. Most of the time, though, she lets her kids be.
When the narrator’s mother does get angry, it’s sparked by dread that her efforts to give her children a better life than the one she has led will come to naught. “I’m the one who’s been expected to do everything from discipline to sitting here on a Monday night after working all day, putting a goddamned waistband on a skirt for someone else,” she cries after her daughters have once again squabbled and thrown the telephone across the kitchen, banging it up and stretching out the cord. “We can’t keep anything decent around here.”
The narrator flees her mother’s outbursts as quickly as she can, sneaking beneath that blanket tent to fight imaginary battles with her brother, or slipping away to Flea’s house. Her disappearances, though logical, tend to rob the reader, for Beard’s most powerful writing stems precisely from those mother-daughter scenes. When last we see the mother, she is sitting alone at the dining table, regarding the reflection of her kitchen in the window, wondering why she can’t keep her children close yet knowing she’s right to let them go.
Although In Zanesville never reaches the introspective and stylistic heights of “The Fourth State of Matter” — the standout story in The Boys of My Youth — Beard nonetheless manages to make the fictional town of Zanesville plenty rewarding. The book fills the reader with nostalgia for an era when marrying Tommy Walton and living in the same place you grew up weren’t so bad, even if neither one brought perfect happiness. Money was hard to come by in 1970s Zanesville, but no one lived in fear of having their home foreclosed on, and for women content to chain-smoke over a hot typewriter all day, decent jobs were plentiful.
It’s clear, however, that the narrator won’t tarry in Zanesville much longer. By the end of this poignant coming-of-age novel, she is on the brink of realizing that those who stay put run the risk of growing up without ever changing.
Alexa Rose Steinberg, a writer in New York City, spent a year in Mongolia on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship before getting two master’s degrees, one in nonfiction writing from the University of New Hampshire and a second in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge.