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Lures

by Sue Goyette

It was the great folk scare of the early 1970s: the cultural interlude between the Rolling Stones and the Clash characterized by that banal splice, the Sensitive Singer/Songwriter. They could sing (enviro-elf John Denver) or write (James Taylor if you ignore the clichés); few could do both (Joni Mitchell), and most were the antithesis of pin-up (Carole King). The movement made deeply meaningful lyrics – double entendre, drug imagery, dirty romance realism – and the B minor 7th chord the signature of every outcast teenager with a bowed-neck 6-string. Parents could only wonder what demon of self-indulgence had swallowed their laughing little volleyball star.
The storm passed. We rebuilt.
I feel a familiar panic when I read the newly coined job description “poet/novelist,” or promo that brags of “a powerful debut novel from a gifted poet.” I see Carly Simon pouting through a gauzy blouse and her soul brother Paul Simon stacked into anatomically correct jeans. I read that slash between the two genres as “either/or,” maybe even “and/or.”
Why fear? Michael Ondaatje was a crossover hit decades ago; Michael Redhill climbed the charts last year. Writers who have whittled and chiselled the poetic line can bring good news – breaking news – to prose. Give them a novel to pull off, though, and a poet faces certain expectations. Poets are uncannily wise and sensitive, have their intellectual nerve endings exposed, and are expected to achieve shocking clarity through surprising image or deft connection.
Sue Goyette won a Governor General’s Award nomination for her 1998 poetry collection, The True Names of Birds, poems rich in wry and often touching observations of home life. In her first novel, Lures, Goyette explores two families living in Beaumont, Quebec.
Both families are clusters of misfits. One family is drug-addled, violent, repressed and/or repressive; the other is defined by shame and shunning. “At risk” is just an anti-poetic term burdened social workers chirp; the characters in Lures – parents, kids, and pets – are bound for big-time deviance, drugs, and death. Goyette the poet could handle that (melo)drama, but Goyette the novelist doesn’t find a voice, style, or the appropriate fictional conventions.
Grace is a teenager with an older brother, Gary, who sells weed small-time. Her mother keeps plastic on the sofa, cleans, and compulsively crochets. Father, Les, is Archie Bunker spliced with the redneck neighbour from American Beauty; he likes little boys. Grace’s family is linked to Lily’s. Lily is a teenager, too, and has a fey little brother, Curtis, a littler sister, a mother who paints compulsively, and a father who did a bad thing to his oldest son, Jerry. Jerry now lives in the woods where he is known as Rave. Grace and Lily are friends.
The plot zooms: Gary’s in debt to his dealer; Les loses his job at Canadian Tire and itches to play a little one-on-one soccer with little Curtis; Jerry/Rave wants to protect Grace and Gary from the dealer and his biker buddies. A subplot has something to do with French/English language tensions: not developed.
Maybe the story is mostly Grace’s, but Goyette employs an arbitrary point of view that darts like a sugar-high hummingbird between characters. There is no central consciousness choreographing these people, and the effect is a speedball formlessness and a lot of useless flutter. Characterization – especially Les – relies on stereotyped diction and hackneyed details (he loves his new snowblower, his power tools; he wants respect, rules under his roof, etc.). Lily’s family is less predictable, but the children are too interesting and defined by a couple of characteristics. Curtis sees everything through binoculars; Lily transcribes encyclopedia entries until she finds her own (poetic) voice at the novel’s end. Lily’s father, Stan, is the novel’s only authentic character, one with complex emotions, interesting responses.
Most troubling are Goyette’s sentences: “The street Rave was crossing and Gary was on was being dug up…. Their sleeves almost touched when they passed each other, and each, lost in his own thoughts, had jumped to see someone so close by. They nodded at each other and kept walking.” Or later, as the novel becomes more attentive to the natural world: “The night sky held some light from a city miles away and the strand of light posts were lit along the highway. Grace looked up. Above her the sky was dark but its edges were a pale purple.” These are typical.
This is writing without artistic influence, style, or nuance (remember Sensitive Singer/Songwriter Dan Hill?), writing that has not been revised. Readers deserve better craft, and they’ll need it, too, if publishers want to capitalize on the poet/novelist double-edge for more than just a cultural moment.