Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Tales of the Midwest: The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard, reviewed

Violence and death are balanced by hard-won, transcendent joy in Beard’s remarkable stories that merge fiction and memoir

Jo Ann Beard. [Franco Vogt]

Jo Ann Beard has said that one of the stories in this collection, although she does not specify which, took her more than 20 years to write and that there was a gap of eight months – during which she was working on the piece five days a week – between two of its sentences. It is true that her writing is remarkably condensed, not least in ‘Cheri’, the story of a real woman who had a particularly hideous case of terminal cancer (exacerbated by the fact that all pain medication made her vomit). Cheri Tremble contacted Jack Kevorkian, a euthanasia expert sometimes nicknamed ‘Dr Death’, so that he could help her end her life. As she begins to die, Cheri, in Beard’s version, wryly reflects: ‘The fear of dying tonight is nothing… compared to the fear of still being alive tomorrow morning.’

Beard has barely been published in the UK, but her fans include Jonathan Franzen, Sigrid Nunez and Jeffrey Eugenides. Mary Gaitskill has called her ‘a kind of literary celebrity that very few people have heard of’.

There is plenty of violence and death, but there is also hard-won, transcendent joy

There is a warning in the introduction to her collected works: she thanks Tin House magazine’s editorial staff, who had previously published some of this collection, for printing her work ‘without undue fretting about genre’. Beard has not always been exact about which of her work is fiction and which memoir, so it seems best to consider it autobiographical fiction or creative non-fiction. 

‘Cheri’ is included in this collection but is also simultaneously published as a stand- alone novella and is based on a story that did not occur in Beard’s own life but one she has extensively researched. She has taken the same approach with ‘Werner’, about a man who jumped from a burning building and survived; and in ‘The Fourth State of Matter’ she writes about a shooting that took place at the University of Iowa, some of whose victims she knew. 

‘Is the Twitter revamp that bad!?’

What unites the collection is that for the most part these are stories of the Midwest.

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