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by John Goulet (Ethiopia 1964–66)
University Press of Colorado, Center for Literary Publishing
189 pages
March, 2000

Review by Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1985–87)

IT’S NOT NEWS THAT LIFE is fundamentally unfair and, for the most part, makes very little sense. These are non-negotiable facts, cornerstones of a rotten reality. How we cope with these facts, however, is what makes living a good life a kind of art form. Our choices are many.
     No one, perhaps, is more attuned to life’s tragic nature and the challenge of responding correctly than the vulnerable foreigner in a foreign land. Toss a Peace Corps Volunteer into the chaos, illogic and cruelty of Third World poverty and place your bets. The Volunteer who recoils from the hopeless mess around him, then counterattacks with a “plan” insisting that people behave predictably, that rules be followed, will be back at the JFK baggage claim counter faster than you can say “psych evac” three times.
     To survive in the Congo or Honduras — as anywhere in life — one must rely on the non-cerebral resources of the heart. One must accept, forgive, and go on, embracing the world in all its messiness. Only then can love happen. Such is a central theme of John Goulet’s superb new novel Yvette In America, an astonishingly beautiful meditation on hope and betrayal, homesickness and insanity. Yvette Pleven, Goulet’s endlessly complex and tragic protagonist, is one of the most original, ornery, exasperating — and yet endearing — female characters to enter the literary stage in a long, long time.
     The year is 1940 when Yvette flees an already tragic life of family dysfunction in France after “a monster in jackboots” plunges Europe into its darkest hour. Leaving her native fishing island off the coast of Brittany, she takes her young son, Raoul, and boards a wounded English vessel down from Dunkerque just as the first German scouts penetrate Brittany. She then survives the German bombing of London before sailing to America through waters thick with U-boats.
     Plunged into the utter foreignness of Boston, a single mother without means, she has already endured more than just war in her 40 years. She has lived through a failed marriage to a “brute” Frenchman and a dark relationship with her father, an island doctor who sharpens his surgery skills on the cadavers of drowned fishermen and who accuses Yvette of contributing to the childhood death of her beloved younger sister.
     It is in Boston, having pawned heirloom rings from France to rent a cramped apartment, that Yvette makes a pivotal decision: She must never make herself vulnerable to persons or circumstances again. “The most important thing in the world is one’s independence,” she declares. And independence can come only from using your wits, forgoing the ruinous path of trust and emotional involvement. “For a clever person, a heart is disaster,” she says. “A clever person can survive if she uses her head. That’s the secret.”
     Goulet lets his protagonist test this philosophy over 50 years of wandering through richly varied American landscapes and personal upheavals. The story is a good one, born aloft by Goulet’s masterful gift for imagery and dialogue. As John Coyne would say when dispensing the highest possible praise, Goulet “writes like an angel.” A summer night of beastly Kentucky humidity becomes “a hot amphibious evening that fills the throat.” And when Yvette pines away for her island home in faraway France, Goulet writes, “O, she can smell seaweed, wet wood, and rope. The breeze across the Channel . . . the lapping of little waves, the grinding of pebbles up and down the beach. In the distance, Yvette’s father is wading out from shore, (in) his floppy straw hat, his spear raised.”
     More than lush prose, Goulet assembles all the hallmark ingredients of great literature by drawing complex characters who wrestle with complex themes within a narrative structure that is itself complex but nonetheless moves the story forward almost effortlessly.
     The novel is told through a series of flashbacks from 89-year-old Yvette’s deathbed. On one level the story of her life reads like the westward quest of America itself. An immigrant in a nation of immigrants, she moves from Massachusetts (an original colony) to life in the former frontier land of Kentucky to a stint along the Colorado Rockies to, finally, the Manifest Destiny dead end of soul-less Los Angeles.
     During this pilgrimage, Yvette’s experiment in spiritual self-reliance bears troubling fruit. Having willed herself to think not feel, to approach life with cold logic, she can only view herself as a victim because bad, senseless things happen in life no matter how much we insist on cleverly insulating ourselves and controlling events. Yvette marries an American in Boston not because she loves him but because it makes sense: Without citizenship she’ll be sent back to war-torn France. But this reasonably likable spouse (he’s a composer who doubles as a window dresser) is all too human: He suffers from chronic asthma and commits an act of adultery that makes no sense to Yvette and she can only see it as an act of unforgivable betrayal. Likewise, it makes no sense that her second son, born in America, would reject her plans to turn him into a Hollywood child actor when his apparent talents could solve her personal financial problems. It makes even less sense when this same child later joins the Peace Corps, surely the ultimate act of insanity and family abandonment from a parent’s point of view.
     Without a heart, Yvette finds forgiveness impossible. And without forgiveness, wrongdoing must forever be punished and resented, turning Yvette’s life into a living hell of bitterness and revenge. Late in the novel, she has one last chance to lay flowers at her deceased American husband’s grave and so heed the warning of several characters who tell her “life is too short for grudges.” But she can’t do it. Stuck viewing the world through the prism of logic, she has lost her humanity completely, unable to see herself as anything but a victim at the hands of her father, the Nazis, her husbands, her sons, the weather, bad luck, you name it. In a fit of graveside disgust, she hurls her bundle of flowers at her husband’s headstone, hissing, “COCHON! Viper! Judas!” and concludes, “All this (talk of) forgiveness makes me sick!”
     It is a testament to Goulet’s skill that he makes Yvette a nonetheless oddly sympathetic character. She has a wickedly funny sense of humor and we can’t help but root for her in her single-minded attempt to will that the world be different, that there be more order and less pain. She finally dies all alone, having cut all ties to the flawed people around her who’ve betrayed her unrealistic expectations. Her experiment in independent living is thus a complete — and tragic — success.
     But before dying, Yvette descends into a state of complete madness so convincing, so gradual and interesting in its details, that the reader wonders for a while if what’s being narrated is really happening or not. It leaves the reader feeling unbalanced and half-crazy — a feeling that melds superbly with Yvette’s own eventual and full-blown dementia — for total effect.
     Goulet, in this uncommonly rich and heartbreaking novel, poignantly reveals that having a heart in a tragic world is a form of masochism, of self-willed suffering. But shutting your heart completely for protection is even worse.
     Such is the human predicament.
Mike Tidwell is the author of In the Mountains of Heaven, a collection of travel essays that will be published in August by the Lyons Press.
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