Will you get high if you drop an aspirin in a Coke and drink it?
This at-times excruciatingly keen novel starts out with the unnamed narrator and her best friend Felicia babysitting for a wild tribe of six children, a tarantula, a python, a rat snake, a bunch of white mice, and an elderly dog for seventy-five cents an hour in order to earn money for new school clothes. The oldest boy sets the house on fire and the fourteen-year-old babysitters can't decide whether they should call the fire department, their mothers or both. They decide that whatever they do, they are not calling the kids' parents. Because the parents are scarier than a house fire.
And the novel just gets better (or worse) from that point on. In Zanesville is a coming-of-age novel set in the 1970s in the township of Zanesville, IL. It's a fairly quiet community, but the way Beard captures every day small town life in the 1970s makes the time period feel a bit absurd. Life was not as idyllic as the 50s and not nearly as sophisticated as the 80s. It's a funny decade, full of fashion boots, culottes, three-cornered scarves, Hamburger Helper and parents who hang out at the neighborhood tavern.
Then there's Beard's exacting depiction of the early teen years: equal parts awkwardness, bewilderment, frustration and shock. That pretty much sums it up. I felt uncomfortable laughing at many of the horrible situations that took place, but I remember getting locked out of the house by the children I babysat (for $2/hour, reflecting the inflation of the early 80s), and the painful realization that you may have outgrown certain friends and vice versa or that things you love just aren't cool (the narrator and Felicia decide to ditch the marching band as they are lining up to march in a parade).
The way Beard gets all of the details down, faking sickness when you want to stay home from school, the excitement of being invited to a sleepover at a popular kid's house while simultaneously feeling the terror of potentially not fitting in, even the way the kids all say, "hi," "hi," "hi," "hi," over and over again is super funny. At the same time, all of the most difficult issues at play in the real world are represented: child abuse, alcoholism, poverty, the death of a parent, comprehending for the first time that teachers have lives outside of school, jealousy, experimentation with drugs and alcohol - the AWARENESS that comes with growing older.
The craziest thing is that the name of the narrator almost slips by without notice - she's called by name once and it's mentioned maybe one other time. It's such an odd thing, forming an attachment to a narrator that you think you know so intimately, because all of the details are hers, and then you realize you didn't even know her name, and it doesn't really matter.
I really, really loved this book. It's personal and relatable, sad and funny, and makes your heart hurt.