Teen Angst, Perfectly Rendered: Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville
Nothing spectacular happens in Jo Ann Beard's debut novel, In Zanesville. There is no murder, no car crash, no divorce, no vampire, and no lightning strike. Rather, we get an unnamed ninth-grade narrator, on the border between being a kid and being a teenager, dealing with all the mundane aspects of a dysfunctional family amid small-town American life in the 1970s. And -- song screeches to a halt -- this is where this funny, awkward book reminds us to give thanks, every day, that we don't have to go back and relive our teenage years.
The main character is a completely regular girl, who babysits (mostly uneventfully, except when the house catches on fire), plays flute in the marching band (until she decides that she looks like a dork and drops out -- in the middle of a parade), whose dad drinks (probably uneventfully, except why do those shotgun shells keep reappearing in the story?), just like anyone else in a no-name, cornfield town, eighty miles from anything. This is hardly a slam against rural life. Rather, it is a geography of anywhere; the exact same dynamic occurs in a typical suburb or a big city. There is a defined social order in this anyplace; the narrator and her best friend Felicia ("Flea") aren't cool, and they know it.
The plot's pivotal point, if it can be called that, occurs after a funny interaction between our heroine and Patti Michaels, a new kid in town, in the girls' bathroom. Patti, a cheerleader, invites our heroine and Flea to a birthday party. Wait. Remember the rules from being a teenager? "Crap! The problem with Patti Michaels is that she not only doesn't know she isn't cheerleader material, but she doesn't know who should and shouldn't be invited to one of their parties. This is a disaster."
Beard, who previously wrote the deeply moving story collection The Boys of My Youth, has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and she has perfectly captured the anxiety, sadness, and humor that lurks just beneath the surface of all of our lives. The crushes, the keg party, the art project, the silent treatment: Like a modern tarot deck, these are the events that shape us, and this novel helps us appreciate how we made it through.