Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Brinksmanship: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

The telephone is on my side of the room, sitting on the dresser with its cord in a neat coil.




Muffled sound in the background, of cars, or of people talking.

Suddenly, I know it's him, Hector, standing at the pay phone next to--where? Maybe the Dairy Mart, while Galen is inside shoplifting. My heart starts pounding, with the strangeness of it all; nobody has every prank phone-called me before, and I don't know what to do.

I set the phone back in its cradle.

In the dresser mirror my face looks the same, but I feel something happening around me,some change as palpable as weather. Stuck in the mirror are mementos from my childhood--red and yellow ribbons from various underachievments, a brown corsage from grade school graduation...

It's a stark feeling. Like getting to the last page of a book and seeing "The End."

In Jo Ann Beard's best-selling In Zanesville: A Novel (Little, Brown, 2011) nothing and yet everything happens.

The first-person narrator (who goes essentially unnamed) and her long-time best friend Felicia, called Flea, finish off the summer between eighth grade and high school being the world's worst babysitters for the world's worst family with their house on fire, and slip into small-town summer limbo until John Deere High School opens.

Both of them are middling, Midwest girls, no sure thing for the popular crowd, not noticeable enough for the loser crowd, clinging to each other and their three friends from elementary school as they drop into the abyss that is adolescence. Our narrator thinks of herself as the sidekick to Flea, who is more daring and less conventional. Her own family is a perpetual tragi-comedy, with a father who spends half his time half-drunk, yelling "I'll say this about that!" meaninglessly at her on-the-edge mom who chain smokes her way through countless cupcakes, mending, meatloaves, sarcastic asides, and shouting matches in the kitchen.

But out of all this miserable miasma, in a chance encounter in the girls' bathroom, our girl catches the attention of Patti the cheerleader, who inexplicably invites her to a sleepover. She inveigles an invitation for Flea, whom Patti grudgingly deems "kind of cute," and the two warily set forth to Patti's grandmother's palatial house, depending of each other to keep them from looking as out of place as they know they are among the otherwise all-cheerleader guests.

And then comes the watershed moment. Patti herds everyone into a pre-arranged sneak-out to meet boys in the park--a bunch of boys whom our girl knows only by reputation. There are thirteen girls, but only twelve boys, and when Flea pairs off with one of the twelve, she is left alone, mortified, in the dark. Flea's betrayal is almost more painful than being the only one rejected, and she knows nothing will ever be quite the same between them.

And yet, life goes on. Just being on the fringes of the popular note-passing, flirting-with-guys crowd gets her noticed by some boys, and despite all that happens, she realizes that some significant rite de passage has occurred and she has moved on into a new life. School is still the same; her family hasn't changed; but something, a different set of possibilities, is out there, ahead of her.

Beard is a master at using the minutiae of daily life to to reveal character and move the plot in understated but lyrical precision. In one telling scene the narrator watches through the kitchen window a scene with the neighbor's hopeless, always angry dog which speaks volumes about her father's life--and perhaps her own.

Outside my father is putting on what be brought down from the attic--trout-fishing boots. As he flips the canvas suspenders over his shoulders and fastens them, he seems to be talking to Curly, who is listening warily from the end of his chain.

He's going to try to walk him. Forget the gun. This is suicide by dog.

Where my dad grew up nobody ever kept a dog chained.

He takes a step, and Curly attacks him at the ankles and calves. Amazingly, the boots withstand it, and after a moment, the dog retreats, hackles up. Attack and retreat. Then, at the next step, there's a lunge but no bite. Still talking, my dad slowly reaches down, unclips the heavy chain from around the tree, and winds it around his gloved hand.

It's like pulling a car, getting him out of the dirt circle. It's been twelve years since he's been beyond that two feet. My father drags him along, inch by inch.

Then Curly is out ahead, hauling a tall man in hip waders through a shrub and down a terrace. The man has a look on his face I've never seen before. He looks happy, leaning backward as the dog strains forward, into the world.

Jo Ann Beard's portrayal of adolescence in the 1970s is right on target, well rooted in the time, yet universal, with its beginning coming-of-age narrative, at times painfully poignant, at others deep-down funny, but always frank and real. One not to miss.

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