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The six "sweet" and surprising stories that comprise Goulet's book are told through a third-person, limited point of view that reads like the score of a duet. One of the two voices of this narrative duet is purely Plevin's. Her psychological patterns impress themselves on Goulet's syntax--"Plenty of tears, you bet"--her language is fresh and lyrically exuberant, as opposed to George's, Yvette's son and co-narrator, whose voice is a "lugubrious" and "morose" counterpoint weighted with the patient searching for explanations that make sense of his mother's motives. In the music of Goulet's sentences, George is the baseline who sustains Yvette's brilliant, improvisational riffs. The rare moments when these two authorial voices separate are evocative of where the stories are ultimately located, as when George is "thinking himself very clever but missing the point, as he always does, which is that the most important thing in the world is one's independence. 'Write that down,' she [Yvette] says, when he finally sits, takes out pen and pad, preparing to requiz her on the past. And she repeats for history's benefit: 'The most important thing in the world is one's independence.'"
George may be pardoned for missing his mother's point. Necessity dictates that George be an onlooker, an observer of his mother, who necessity dictates is perpetually forced into action. In "House of Happiness," for example, while Yvette's mostly American contemporaries are engaged in creating the ambiance of a bohemian lifestyle in Boston, she is busily fashioning an Americanized version of herself that will allow her and her son to survive in the country of their asylum; in "Dear Father Flanagan," Yvette, during a "rainy Easter week" in Lexington Kentucky, shoulders the burden of savior who would rescue a child from his abusive father ("'Whose idea was it to call Good Friday good?' Yvette wonders. 'Certainly not Christ's'").
"L'Academie Francaise" finds Yvette in Grand Junction, Colorado, momentarily taking on the role of small-time celebrity that is bestowed upon her by the local French club; in "The Snake in the Snow," set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Yvette finds herself inhabiting the role of the "other woman," as she perceives herself through the eyes of her deceased ex-husband and his surviving wife; in the second to last story, "Trust," the reader journeys to the MGM studios in L.A. and finds Yvette's impulse toward self-invention transferred to her son, who Yvette is convinced will be "a handsome Mickey Rooney, not a clown. A prince!"; the final story, "Yvette in Love," which is set in Milwaukee, distorts the role of actor and role, as Yvette, now in her eighties and suffering the onset of dementia, is no longer able to separate what is real from what is fiction.
The first of eight short narrative "frames" that serve as connective tissue between the stories begins where the last story ends. The book's prologue establishes a cohesive narrative present--the last several days of Yvette on her hospital death-bed, her son by her side--so that, like the two narrative voices, the reader is aware of two coexisting chronologies. For all its technical mastery, the thematic result is breathtakingly human: our present is a refugee of a past we can never go back to.
John Goulet's Yvette in America is wise, subtle, innovative, by turns funny and profoundly sorrowful. It is, in short, such an astonishingly good book that the reader comes away from it thankful that we have Goulet in America contributing to American letters. It is also a remarkable premiere for the University Press of Colorado's Series in Contemporary Fiction.
Accompanying her on many of these journeys is her loyal, loving, bewildered, grows-up-to-be-lugubrious son, another finely crafted character.
What we have here is a well-crafted series of connected stories, about a truly remarkable woman at various ages, in various cities, and in various circumstances (often with her son). The mother-son epidsodes are like a road movie about buddies who never quite get along, who never quite understand each other, who never quite quit wondering about each other, but who always manage to care about each other. Both on her own and with her son, Yvette's life sometimes reads like the Marx Brothers meet Colette--On the Road.
Connecting the various stories are accounts of Yvette's last days in Milwaukee. Throughout, Yvette is always trying to figure the right angle to make her life work better, to discover what it all means, and, finally, to understand, if she can, what her life has meant to her.
"Tell him...O, mon Dieu, tell him where he can find me!" Yvette exclaims about her Milwaukee judge.
You can find her in John Goulet's book.
She's ancient, she's a little odd, and she seems to exist in a parallel universe. Maybe, once in awhile, she mumbles a little something to herself.
You almost certainly don't know Yvette as well as John Goulet does. Goulet, 58, is a former Iowan who teaches contemporary literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Yvette, the dominant figure in Goulet's new novel, ``Yvette in America'' (189 pages, $22, University Press of Colorado) is based on his mother, Isabelle.
Just like Isabelle, Yvette was born on a small island off the coast of Brittany, divorced there, fled from the Nazis, immigrated to Boston with a young son, married a composer and had a son.
Yvette (and Isabelle) was restless, moving from Kentucky to Colorado to California and Iowa, where she landed jobs first at a hotel, then as a clerk-typist and sometime French translator for Collins Radio,
``We lived in Cedar Rapids forever,'' says John Goulet from Milwakee, although someone in the company of Isabelle and her wanderlust can be excused for calling the years from 1954-60 ``forever.'' Goulet got a Ph.D from Iowa in 1974, after having taken an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. He was in the Iowa Writers' Workshop from 1968-70, then ``got into more the academic side.''
Whatever. Goulet is still a writer, and a good one. ``Yvette'' is billed by its publisher as a ``sequential'' novel. Many of its chapters, if that's what they're called, were initially written and published as stand-alone short stories.
``It's hard to get a short story collection published,'' he says. ``People always tell you your stories are good, then ask you if you have a novel.''
If Goulet is tricking readers, it's a darned good trick. He knits the stories together with italicized passages in which Yvette, confused in a Milwaukee at the end of her life, looks back. Goulet does a nice job of describing that confusion without being either confusing himself or maudlin.
Yvette is a refugee, but she turns the concept on its head. She's different, perhaps even a little ``crazy,'' as her father told her many times. But she's crazy like a fox, and she always controls her own destiny.
``Mother suffered for her independence,'' Goulet says. So does Yvette. They both gain from it, though. So will you, if you read about it.
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