What the World is Trying to Be: Lessons from John Goulet
Mauricio Kilwein Guevara | February 2019
On February 7, 2018, my former teacher in the doctoral Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the fiction writer John Goulet, died on a snowy night in a hospice just outside of the city. Of the many things that John helped to clarify for me over the thirty years of our friendship is that literature at its best animates the core social functions of bringing humans closer to one another, of mitigating unwelcome solitude, and of growing our empathy for the world at large.
As a word of introduction, John was born Jean Andre in 1942 in Boston to a US father of Franco-Irish descent and a French mother who came to the United States as a refugee during World War II. He spent a somewhat chaotic childhood moving frequently and living in a number of cities across the country. He attended St. John's University in Minnesota before completing an MA in English at San Francisco State University (studying as I did with the astonishing writer and political activist Kay Boyle). He received an MFA and a PhD in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. As a young man who marched in the civil rights movement, John spent time in a Clarksdale, Mississippi jail. He taught English in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia for two years, an experience that moved him deeply. It was among his proudest accomplishments.
John published two novels: Oh's Profit and Yvette in America. John's short stories were published widely, including in the following publications: Beloit Fiction Quarterly, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Flash Fiction Forward, and Story Quarterly. Just before his death, his selected stories were published under the title Wally Boil, You're a Mean Person and I Hate You Forever!
What follows is the text of a memorial speech I gave to a packed audience on March 10, 2018 at the Hefter Conference Center on campus. You could feel it in the air: the first day of spring was just around the corner.
John was my teacher at UWM and, many years later, he became my colleague there. John and Susan are grandparents to our children. John was my traveling partner in Leadville, Oostburg, Dordogne, and Málaga. But more than that, John was my playmate.
Let me say it again, John Goulet was my playmate, my drinking buddy, my wacky collaborator. We were a vaudeville comedy team, you see, Rack and Ruin, Sancho & Don Quixote, Didi and Gogo, but dammit if we could tell who was who. Vaudeville. Voix de ville. Voice of the people. See, we played the Orpheum in Frisco, the Bijou in Boston. In the early days we played small towns like Grand Junction and Cedar Rapids. Oh, we had a bag of tricks. We had funny shirts and hats. We even had a yodeling pickle and a fart machine. Could she, could she, could she coo, has anybody seen my girl? We slayed at the Palace, brother, and don’t you ever forget it.
In the last six months of his life, John and I wanted to write a letter to one another every day. In the end, severe nausea from chemo therapy ended the project almost as soon as it began. But here are two of the letters and one haiku.
Thanks for your letter, old pal, and your good idea, which got me thinking and writing. I’m game to try, a letter a day. Turns out my cancer is probably esophageal, better to know when treating than not to know, though esophageal ain’t the best.
This is what came to mind tonight…
Carousels. In the old days, meaning the 50s, when I was growing up, when you said carousel you meant the thing that goes round and round at a carnival. It had horses, camels, imaginary animals of all sorts. All gaily painted with huge flashing eyes, enormous tails and flashing hooves. Modern carousels you find at airports, I’m thinking in particular of the carousel at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
So this is the first day of my chemo. Started at 7:30 in the morning, and ended around 12:30. Sent home with a battery pack that will keep a little pump pumping for the next 48 hours. After that, I report to the hospital, they unplug me, and I'm free of pump for another week and a half, at which time process starts over again. They say that the first three days of chemo can be unpleasant, depends on the person. For some very unpleasant and others mildly so. Some people are able to work when getting chemo. I don't think I could work. I'm having a difficult time just concentrating on one thing at a time. I don't seem to be able to get through an entire article in The New York Times. My mind drifts. Notions float by like pollen, like shit Wheaties. However, I can watch television—MSNBC. Listen to one commentator after another tell me what I think we've all known for months if not years: Trump is unhinged.
I was trying to think about an Italian director in the 60s who is famous for filming Rome—not Fellini, the other guy, the guy I never liked all that much, the guy who––next to Fellini––lacked humanity, humor and generosity. The guy who saw life as a series of failed love affairs. The people are always tiny. Tiny black ants crawling at the bottom of a huge slice of… The reason I was trying to think of him is because he loved to film these enormous empty spaces, mostly cement walls, deadly Roman high-rises, and inner spaces that never end—like airports––airports and their carousels, and so I'm thinking about the role carousels play in our lives. How many hours have we spent waiting for our luggage to arrive. Sometimes it arrives, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it's late, sometimes it's busted open.
So I’m thinking about the bang-bang violence we witness when we stand around these carousels. The luggage ––big plastic boxes, most of them black, now with wheels, come crashing down a little ski-jump onto the metal shingling carousel going round and round. The grinding, metal-sliding noise. The banging. Suitcases from all over the world banging into each other, leaning all which way, half in and half off the track. I’m thinking of the owners, how they rush to grab their bag when they finally see it, pushing others away. Often they arrive a second too late, and the bag continues without them for another cycle. Or maybe they arrive too late but are the type that don't give up, and make a grab for the suitcase and miss, and then they rush ahead, past the next three people waiting for their suitcases, and make another grab and they miss again. And then they yell at somebody ahead to grab their bag—the one with the red label––and the person does or doesn't. Usually does, and then the owner of the bag takes it and stows it and starts looking for the next bag.
You can see in their despair… not despair, but in their desperate need to grab their bag, people's desire to get on with their life, their new life at this often new place or to resume their old life, but to get past the transition to be in life again. Because waiting at the carousel you're in this big empty space with a lot of strangers waiting for your stuff. You’re in a movie by that Italian director whose name I can’t remember. Waiting for your stuff. Because without your stuff you can’t start your new life or resume your old life and when you open your bag, when you get wherever you're going, what you find is clean underwear, a couple pairs of slacks, shirts, your laptop. Socks, an extra pair of shoes, etcetera, depending on the weather, locale, whether it's Charles de Gaulle airport where you’ll find my mother on a carrousel because years ago my suitcase holding her ashes broke open and spilled half of her and she’s been there ever since going round and round, critiquing the fat and the ugly, the cripples and the obviously mad, or an airport in Shanghai or in Costa Rica or Buenos Aires, or Rome, or wherever you're going, wherever you're starting your new life or resuming your old life, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Menominee Falls Community Hospital Cancer Center, where on a beautiful October day decent, responsible nurses being nice attend to you while you’re getting chemo, and you waiting, not exactly for your stuff, but for something.
Several days later I got worried; I hadn’t received anything in our letter exchange, when this came through the computer:
Wish I felt like pencil rolling but not tonight, first brush with nausea they’ve been warning me about… the other night I composed a ditty in the dark using the word passel and another word that rhymed with passel. It was a fine little ditty. Then I forgot the second word. Now I’ve looked up rhyming words on the internet and I think it was vassals.
My letter unpacked a few memories from my student days.
You were my fiction writing teacher at UWM. This was in the late 1980s. My first marriage started to fall apart about a month after starting the program. I remember the whole world was focused on Baby Jessica, a toddler who had fallen into a well in Texas. She spent days there until rescuers were finally able to get her out safely.
One of my first memories in the program was of walking with you on the fourth floor of Curtin Hall. I was looking up to see your face. You had a beautiful full dark beard in which troupes of trapeze artists and passels of vassals and lumberjacks coexisted peacefully. You know, John, you’re still tall as a tree.
I also remember that, in your fiction writing seminar, you had a three-ring binder, which gave me the impression that you were extremely organized. You also had a funny little rule that I'd never experienced before. We, the student writers, when a story or chapter was being discussed, could NOT make any literary references outside of the work under discussion. Actually, that's not quite true. During the entire 15-week semester, we could only make ONE literary reference. Then you were tapped out. You explained that since not everybody would be familiar with one's allusion—you noted that even Hamlet is not universally read—we needed to stick to the story at hand. In hindsight, that was probably a good idea.
I remember thinking: "piece of cake." That is, until I was knee-deep in a discussion of how somebody's narrator seemed too self-conscious and writerly; then the following popped out of my pie-hole: "Jeez, this guy sounds like John-Boy Walton."
"Stop right there, Kilwein. That's your one reference for the entire semester." You had a funny little grin like a snake that had just eaten a toad.
My face burned with what Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, (that’s a literary reference, by the way) called "litost": a Czech word conveying one's sudden insight into the pathetic nature of his very being. I had squandered my one and only reference by mentioning a hokey-ass character from a sentimental family drama on CBS. I felt doomed!
Another time, the summer before prelims, you and I did an individualized reading course. Every week I read a few novels or collections of stories, and at the appointed time we met at Benji's Jewish Deli in Shorewood to discuss the reading. You were married to a vegetarian at the time, Susan Goulet, and the strict regimen of eating leafy vegetables and legumes on a daily basis resulted in your ordering a portion of corned beef that today would probably be visible on Google Earth. I remember that you were incredibly sweet and funny, yet you were focused on making sure I had a solid handle on the literature. I also remember that you always picked up the check. Always. Even though I had very little money in those days, you made sure I felt welcome and comfortable. As a child I had grown up poor, lived in the Glen Hazel Housing Projects in Pittsburgh, then moved a lot as renters tend to do, so such kindness would never be forgotten on me.
One final memory: I had just successfully defended my dissertation, and you treated me to a beer at a bar on Downer Avenue. You reminded me that I should not think that, as a newly-minted Doctor of Philosophy, I could just go ahead and do surgery on myself. You then told me that you'd read in the newspaper how a man from Madison bought a basic surgery kit and got into the habit of making incisions into his thorax, poking around a bit, and then stitching himself up. He did this a few times until he eventually became dangerously infected and needed to be hospitalized. I told you not to worry because I faint easily.
Although the words come from the poet William Stafford, you are the person who taught me what it really means to be a writer:
"Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be."
I end with this haiku by Jean Andre Goulet:
a passel of vassals
my house now
Mauricio Kilwein Guevara is a fiction writer, poet, and playwright. In 2002 he was the first person of Latino descent to be elected President of AWP’s Board of Directors. He directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is currently finishing a serio-comic road novel about family that takes place in Ecuador, entitled The Thieves of Guevara.
Photo Credit: Susan Blake