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What’s the most hair-raising moment in Jo Ann Beard’s consistently hair-raising new collection of essays and stories, Festival Days? Is it when a home invader’s hand reaches out to grasp his victim’s ankle and she falls backwards across her kitchen floor? Is it when a dying woman who wants only to make her way to Dr. Kevorkian watches her oxygen tank creep toward zero on the road to Michigan? Is it the feathered holocaust when a raccoon finds its way into a duck house and devours its inhabitants one by one?
I myself think it’s the moment an artist, wreathed in smoke in his burning tenement building, leaps from his fifth-floor window, through the closed window of the building next door, clutching his cat as he flies across the eight-foot gap. “His skull broke the wood and shattered the glass into long daggers,” Beard writes. “He went in up to his knees, which landed on the stone sill, body all the way through onto someone’s bed, right into their apartment, clanging with brightness, lights on in every room.”
“You can’t make this shit up,” Beard writes about the ducks getting massacred the very same night she sat at her friend’s hospice bedside. That’s true and not true, like so many things about this bracing book. Most of the stories in Festival Days are essays, recounting true events, like “Werner,” the details of which come from Werner Hoeflich, the painter who hurled himself through that tenement window years ago. But within those essays are feats and flights of imagination: Beard placing herself inside other people’s brains in the midst of high drama, or at their lives’ very end. And two of the stories, including the O. Henry Prize-winning “The Tomb of Wrestling,” are fiction, though, as Beard writes in her stubbornly unclarifying author’s note, “they are also essays, in their own secret ways.” You can make shit up, but you can still be telling the truth.
Like many readers, I first came to Jo Ann Beard through her heart-thumping masterpiece of an essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in the New Yorker in 1996. Beard was an editor at a science journal at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a former graduate student in physics killed five of his teachers and colleagues, including Beard’s friend Christoph Goertz. Her essay about the shooting was unflinching and helped me, the reader, think clearly about the unthinkable. I expect that certain moments from that essay will stay with me forever.
The most indelible stories in Festival Days observe just as unflinchingly as Beard’s characters face the extremities of life and death. I can’t think of a writer who puts words to our most difficult moments as adroitly as Beard—who so steadfastly refuses to cut away when things get tough. It never makes Festival Days an ordeal to read, though I found myself needing to take a walk when I reached the final page of each piece. During those walks, I found myself revisiting the stories, feeling invigorated to be in the company of someone who seems so much braver than me, and to soak up just some of that bravery.
You can’t talk about Festival Days without talking about the deaths. Several of the stories end in death, narrated sometimes from the outside but sometimes from the inside, and the effects are mysterious and magnificent. I say this not to scare potential readers away from the book, but to stress that Beard’s big-heartedness and plain-spokenness makes death less scary than it seems most of the rest of the time. I think it’s because of a writerly trick that Beard uses in each of these stories, which has the effect of making the deaths proper culminations of the pieces in which they appear.
Beard is fond, as a writer, of finding three or four recurring images in a story and returning to them again and again, worrying over them like prayer beads. A turtle grabbing a shovel with its prehistoric beak, a dive from a trestle bridge into cool water, a marble statue of a veiled woman. It doesn’t feel repetitive; it feels like the work of a writer, taking things that might otherwise become familiar and finding new meaning in them each time they return. When, in her characters’ final moments, she returns one last time to those images, the effect is comforting. Even when these deaths are frightening, sad, or violent, they have meaning: the order imposed by a writer who patiently, kindly, takes us by the hand and explains how things are.