Lester Goran’s Last Song: A Sentimental Book Review of “Bing Crosby’s Last Song.”

Meeting Lester After Many Years

 

I found Bing Crosby’s Last Song in the early months of 2015, nearly seventeen years after it was published and a year or so after Lester Goran, my old creative writing teacher, had passed away. I had been putting this off for a while. It seems like I’ve been doing a lot of mourning lately, and I didn’t want to rush head first into the mourning process again.

 

I was trying to write less, read more, and give functional adulthood a run for its money.

 

Things don’t always work out the way you want. My writing habit was never going to go away. And I had the nagging feeling that if I didn’t buy this book on Amazon soon and write up a review, it would find a way to grow legs and track me down.

 

Even though I’m writing this book review somewhere overseas, far away from home, I choose to meet Lester in a bar in his Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It could be 1968, the setting of his novel, or it could have been ten or so years before, at a time when the Order of the Hibernians, Number 9, better known as the Irish Club, was still in operation.

 

For many of Goran’s short stories and novels, the Irish Club is the center of his fictional universe.

 

When I meet him, he’s already spilling a few drinks with his characters — Boyce and Daly Racklin, Michelle Shortall, and Father Farrell. He looks surprised to see me.

 

I inform him casually that he’s dead. I read him the headlines from the University of Miami press release, “Lester Goran, Founder of UM’s Creative Writing Program, Dies at 85.” He looks at me, somewhat surprised that he’s dead. But I’m even more surprised, it’s like I’m reading this damned press release for the first time. As I’m reading it, I can’t help but notice how sanitary it is. It’s almost as if the person who wrote it had never met Lester or was too embarrassed to write anything honest about him.

 

If nothing else, Lester Goran was not a sanitary man — apt to speak his mind, except when he wasn’t, and to lampoon his own life. What would he say about this press release — the product of a bureaucratic process at an institution he spent most of his life. Perhaps he would say there is a story behind it. Then again, he also said he thought that there were almost no worthwhile stories to tell at a college campus — the fact that many of his stories take place in Pittsburgh, the place he lived for the other 31 of his years tells me that he was a true believer in what he said.

 

“You spent 54 years in the University of Miami creative writing program?”

 

He knocks back a drink, probably a whisky sour or a vodka, and says, “Wasn’t much of a creative writing program when I got there. I practically built the damn thing…”

 

And it’s just like old times. I have to pry him away from his own words.

 

If the press release is right, then that means he spent more time at a university than out of one. A strange fate for someone who could be so dismissive of creative writing programs.

 

At 85 years of age, and countless wandering the bars of the afterlife, he spent 31 years out and 54 years in. In what? An institution he despised?

 

“I wouldn’t say despised. A certain amount of ambiguity and healthy suspicion certainly. That’s natural for someone like me who grew up in my neighborhood. Even when you know a good thing, you’re always worried it’s going to drug you and take your wallet.”

 

*

 

I have all my notes on the novel scattered on notebook pages and bar napkins.

 

“I probably need to outline this,” I tell him.

 

“You probably need to throw it out,” he says.

 

“Throw it out and start over?” I ask

 

“Start over, have a drink. It’s all the same. Who knows what will happen to the written word in the future. Perhaps baboons will learn to type and college students will learn higher forms of plagiarism that involve circus animals.”

 

He’s starting to sound a lot like the lutz I had in creative writing class — clownish, buffoon-like, witty at times, and hoping to spare a few of us from the pain and misery of taking ourselves seriously as writers.

Everything Right and Wrong, Pittsburgh 1968

 

It’s 1968, and one Daly “Right” Racklin, the second Right Racklin, has been told that his heart is failing and that he probably has less than a year to live. Daly is a lawyer, a do-gooder, a local legend to the people of the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Oakland is as right and wrong as it ever has been. Things are changing, and as Daly walks the streets he finds much to reminisce about — a love song to a bygone time, even as he has to deal with the struggles of the present.

 

“Is that about right?” I ask Lester.

 

“Keep going, kid. I might not get another review of this book in my after-lifetime, so you better finish this.”

 

This place and time, Pittsburgh 1968, is one that is real, thick, and alive. But it’s not necessarily a place for outsiders. In fact, it can be rather cruel to outsiders. For anyone who has dropped in on this universe before, one that revolves around the Order of the Hibernians, Number 9, better known as the Irish Club, you’ll know that the place is a rich tapestry. There are hints and winks and subtle innuendos that will leave readers baffled. Just as a character who makes his way to Oakland from New York will have a rough time, if you’re not a hardy reader, in for the long haul, then you’d better scram.

 

“Geez, tell me what you really think?” he says. “But you speak the truth. Go on, go on.”

 

“The only other thing I was going to say was that you obviously cared about the characters and this universe you were creating”

 

“You should tell them what happens in the book.”

 

There is not one plot element, but a series of interconnected events that make up the last year of Daly “Right” Racklin’s life: his failing heart; the checkered legacy of his father that includes an inheritance he may or may not live to collect; the various characters he helps in his role as lawyer and champion to the poor; the poor girl Michelle Shortall whose insides are hardening (turning to stone) and her visions of Daly’s father; and the various machinations of his sister Ruth Marie and the femme fatale Gloria Scone. This world, with its many strings and histories, flow through Daly as a living memory of Pittsburgh.

 

He doesn’t look impressed. “You should’ve written sitcoms!” he says.

 

I can’t tell whether this is a compliment or an insult.

 

“To sitcoms,” I say. I raise my glass and take my first drink of something. It must be a gin and tonic, even though I usually just drink beer.

 

I tell Lester, as I sit with him in one of the old pubs that dot Oakland street in Pittsburgh, that his book is about fathers, sons, and legacies. Daly Racklin is trying to come to terms with his namesake and the idea that perhaps his father and he are not the people they think they are. The first Right Racklin leaves Daly with two mysteries. The first, when he is younger, is a conspicuously small sum of money. When he is older, 50, his father leave him with another conspicuously small sum that was charged to a disreputable lawyer — who had at one point a large sum but lost it all. Why his father had such a large sum and had entrusted it to an unsavory type is the mystery.

 

Lester starts in on a little chant. “Sons and fathers, fathers and sons. Oh what fun it is to be in love. But here I am, in a bar stool in France, and of all things, I’ve forgotten my underpants.” And with that, he takes another long drink and starts on “Oh Danny boy.” “Oh Danny Boy, Oh Danny Boy…”

 

Did Lester ever have kids? I can’t ask him because he’s just some figment in a bar made up of scraps of memory.

 

What is Lester drinking? Beer, scotch. How little I know about this person. I’m still waiting for something. The bar where we sit, some dive in Oakland, perhaps a shadow of the old Irish Club, is filled with smoke and lounge music, and I lose the thread of the story.

 

*

 

It’s 1998 when the book comes out — thirty years too late? Lester Goran has fifteen, perhaps a little more, years left to live. Why didn’t he write another novel? Maybe by that time he was set on lingering on past accomplishments and milking his tenure at UM. Maybe in his own mind he was an institution man — damaged beyond repair. It’s 2015 and I’m writing this from a foreign country with a harsh desert climate. How did I get here? And why are there no stories here?

That’s what Lester must have wondered when he found himself in MIami. I don’t know if Lester ever wrote anything set in Miami or if he ever felt he knew Miami well enough to write anything there. But he always told me that there were no stories at a university — and that’s where he spent most of his life.

As I write this essay, I take breaks to watch the show Firefly. Lester always said that about twenty percent of the fiction he received in class vaguely reminded him of shows that were on HBO. Don’t copy stuff from TV shows — don’t write fanfiction for creative writing class. But in this case I might have to make an exception. There is so much heart and love to this show.

Thirty-three is a strange time for me. One where I’m hesitant to start anything and doubtful that I’ll finish. Is that the way Lester felt after he finished Bing Crosby’s Last Song?

 

*

 

“So, what is this book?” he asks me. “In your opinion?”

 

“What’s it to me or what’s it to the people who will read it because of this thing I’m writing now?”

 

“Either. Both. None. Have a drink and forget the question or answer it, but do what you will quickly before I die again.”

 

“It’s what you say about Oakland in the middle of the book when you…I mean Daly, the main character, gets back from Connecticut. You’re glad to be home, but you realize how wrong it is at the same time…Oakland is right. Oakland is wrong. Oakland is home. Your book is right. Your books is wrong, but to you, it’s your last song, so you had to write it in a way that would bring closure and would almost seem like home. It’s Sinatra’s “I did it my way!” Who knew you would live for another fifteen years. It was like the fates tempting you to write another book, half finished, and then you would pass away. It’s cruel, but whatever it was, it had to be home.”

 

Suddenly, Lester stands up. He seems happy and alive with drink. He pulls a picture out of his pocket. It’s a picture of him and Daly Racklin together. Lester looks young, almost a kid, and Daly looks older — kind of like what Lester looked like when I met him in 2002.

 

“It’s not that I did it my way. It’s that there was a story about this guy and there was only one way to really tell it. Right or wrong, that was the way the story went. It was a song that was there to sing. No more, no less.”

Questions of Motivation

 

It’s odd how fate works. Goran was most impressed by the one review he received from the New York Times. Like a lightning bolt out of the blue, it seemed to magically propel him to three more books, unnatural expectations, and then perhaps more bitterness. I don’t know. I didn’t know him well, even though I have vivid memories of him. Maybe he really did think the whole thing — writing, university teaching — was a lark, and he was just glad he wasn’t digging ditches somewhere.

 

I can recall at least once when he talked about the review in class. And, I think, he was almost smiling. But like with so many other things for writers, joy soon turned to bitterness and there seemed to be something — I don’t know what to call it — a fighter’s mentality, an “I haven’t gotten my due respect” or “I should have been a contender” sort of anger behind his joy. He never accepted the clean-cut polish of university asceticism and high-mindedness, seeing it as pretension and phony nonsense, so there was no need to be humble or quiet about anything he might have seen as professional slight.

I wonder why it’s easier to write about Lester than my mom or dad. Too many ghosts and memories. Better to drink and move on for a while, if you can. Write a book review set in a bar with an old creative writing teacher, just don’t go too deep or else you’ll find yourself stuck in memories too joyous or painful to move past.

 

I wonder why Goran wrote the book when he did — nearly fifteen years before his death. There is a lot of backward looking in the book. Is that how you know you’re dead, when you start looking backward? Daly is a man with more memories than hopes for the future — he sees change and he tries to accept it, but sees it more as a curse than a blessing.

 

*

 

The New York Times called Lester “Man of the Year.” Well, not quite. Anyway, here is the New York Times Book Review entitled “Celtic Twilight.” The author says of Lester’s prose: “the syntax loops in on itself, aiming for the effects of dialect, often challenging comprehensibility. (A good copy editor might have saved the author from himself at various points.)”

A good copy editor might have saved the author from himself. Well, Lester Goran wasn’t going to let anyone save him from himself. Lester was going to be as grotesque as he wanted to be. There is no getting around it — Lester was born to write these sentences just the way they are. They speak of a storytelling culture and a humble background. They speak of stories that defy propriety.

 

The reviewer also says, “Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organization known casually as the Irish Club, which shut its doors forever in 1965, the last year of the Second Vatican Council. Yet Mr. Goran’s heart is largely in the 1950’s, when his Irish-Americans seem to drift in a long Celtic twilight.” Yeah, that too. Although, according to him he wasn’t Irish. (I have my doubts).

 

*

 

I try to find other things on Lester, but it seems the internet age has not been kind to him. I find an article in the Sun Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale’s newspaper) written in 2011. The article says that 1960 was a “banner” year for Lester. That the Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue came out to wide attention. But online I have trouble even finding anything about the work.

 

In the Sun Sentinel article, though, I find things that make Lester live and breathe. I find this quote by him about his early days teaching at the University of Miami: “I wasn’t making that much writing and I was teaching a lot of hours,” Goran says. “In the summers I went back to sell storm windows in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it.”

 

That adds some flesh to Lester’s blue-collar sensibility. His anger probably also helped him scrap when he needed to.

 

I find out other things about Lester — he had three children. I’m not sure what to make of that.

I don’t find much on his first book, Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, but I do find some stuff written on him on Rate my Professors.

 

Of course, the site’s biased. Most students hate professors who call their writing crap. He might not have used the word “crap.” Maybe he did. But he didn’t keep his opinions to himself. As I read some of the comments on “Rate my Professors,” I can’t help but agree with some of the students who wrote bad reviews — I try to dig deeper as to why. College was Goran’s paycheck, but I always got the feeling he would rather get paid to write. He had a chip on his shoulder about it and he didn’t hesitate to put down universities — perhaps as something less than what was out there in the real world.

 

One person wrote, “Knowledgeable but spiteful bitter and egotistical.”

 

To be fair, his ratings are all over the map. Who knows what kind of professor he was. Perhaps his teaching quality changed according to mood and decade. After all, there were five decades worth of Lester to love or hate. 1970s Lester was probably a lot different than 2000s Lester.

There are No Good Stories at a University

When I knew Lester Goran from 2002 to 2003, he seemed to me an offensive creature — on campus, in his writing. Sometimes, he seemed like he was trying to be offensive on purpose. In class, I think he openly called college and writing a “racket.” My memory isn’t clear on this, but I think he also said he would probably stay at his job until he died because after growing up in the projects a racket like tenure was just too good to walk away from. College was an insider’s game — you played the system and got rewarded. Something like that. I don’t need to make up bad things he said about universities or university teachers — he put most of his ideas into words through the mouthpiece of Daly Racklin in his last novel.

 

*

I ask Lester to listen in on a scene from his book about the University of Pittsburgh. This scene takes place as Silk (an old boxer) and Daly are walking through the University of Pittsburgh, as kind of tourists.

Silk has just finished telling Daly about his troubles picking up college girls when he was younger. He says that he would often try to pass as a college student to pick up a girl, but that once they started talking he couldn’t stand to listen to them.

 

You can read this part starting on page 258.

“It made no sense.” [This is Silk talking.]

Daly laughed. “Don’t say that too loud, they’ll put us out. You’ll be closing down a racket going for centuries, them what thinks they have the superiority handed to them by paying tuition, and them what believes the propaganda and accepts the crumbs from the table.”

“They’re dumb as I am most of them around here, and I can’t think worse to say of them.” [this is Silk talking again.].

“Now you got the secret, only you not knowing that is what keeps them in place.” [p. 258].

I tell Lester: “This is you talking through your characters.”

 

He seems red and drunk and obnoxious to me now. I don’t want him to deny it to me. College was always my holy place, warts and all, there are few places holier to me. I want to slap him across the face and shit in his crappy little bar. Irish Club be damned.

 

But you can’t slap a dead man, and there’s no point shitting in a fictional bar, so there it is, and I stare at my reconstructed version of him, red and drunk, and about to say something and I let my image of him collapse.

 

He used to say there were no good stories at a university. I tend to think the same thing about bars.

*

Of course that is why students gave him two stars on Rate my Professors. How can you like someone who mocks the very enterprise you’re engaged in? There is enough cynicism in the world already. A college doesn’t have to be holy and stripped of contradictions — it just has to be better than the other nonsensical places of the world. It has to be better than a bunch of loquacious drunks in a pub.

*

 

Here is a better insight on the university — something that makes Lester’s more than fifty odd years as a writing professor seem better. Daly says, “College felt like an extension of St. Agnes, priests, brothers, classes in religion, an extension of being good and virtuous — and good ain’t easy, as we have come to know, right?” (p. 259).

 

So, Lester,” I say, “there is nothing sacred or holy about the legacy you left at the University of Miami? It was all just racketeering and passing the time, collecting paychecks, and using the written word to remember the good old days in Pittsburgh?” I ask it, not knowing what he would answer, what he can answer.

Here’s what he writes about the Irish Club: “the Irish Club and its visionary drinkers, a child’s city on the hill” (p. 201). It’s hard for me to read a passage like this. I don’t think of drinking as visionary or child-like, but rather as sinful. Let every drunkard become a pot-smoker is my motto.

 

Perhaps he was being sarcastic. I don’t think so, though.

 

Back at the Bar

 

“You know,” he says, “you have this way of writing a book review so that no one will ever want to read the book or read another of your reviews ever again.”

 

I take a sip of my martini and show him a bunch of bar napkins with notes written all over them.

 

“Here,” I say. “Scatter these around and let’s see if we can make some sense of this before we’re off to our next bar.”

 

This peaks his interest. He didn’t know about the other bar we were going to.

 

Napkin One: And then Lester also has one of the best lines ever written about war:

“You see,” he said, “talking about it changes things. Anything at all can be said, virtually anything at all can be done. War puts people into straitjackets. There is so little sense to it that roosters give birth to cows and people who would ordinarily spend their lives fixing carburetors in car dealerships drop flaming bombs on people they’ve never met–and get bullets from strangers they meet in the dark as part of the regular business of walking around at night.” (p. 132-133).

 

“I should have something to say about this,” I tell Lester. “You really had a scene there. I mean, a scene to top all scenes. Right in the middle of some flaky rich woman’s house you just drop a bombshell like that…” I’m getting incoherent. “I’m going to write a page just on this one little speech.”

 

“Just leave it on the napkin,” he says. “Someone may get a glance at it while they’re wiping peanuts off their crotch.”

 

I take a look at the second napkin. I’ll make a book review out of this yet.

 

Napkin two: Gloria Scone lives in clouds made of metaphysical realities; Daly is a salt of the earth kind of person who occasionally sees visions of dead gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd in cemeteries and other places. He tells Gloria Scone at one point that metaphysics always makes him thirsty and asks for another drink.

 

“You had the perfect two villains for your book — the flaky, New Age woman in Gloria Scone and ummm, forgot what Daly’s sister’s name was. Ruth Marie. That’s it.”

 

These two people have to be out of Lester’s real life. Perhaps he had a real sister like that, or an ex-wife, or a girlfriend, a mother, something. You can’t write what you don’t know. And he knew these two girls. Gloria Scone, the rich aristocrat with money, too much free time, and a head full of New Age nonsense.

Napkin three: Goran writes about drinking casually as if there is nothing to it. For me, drinking has larger meanings.

 

It occurs to me now that Lester sometimes ran his writing seminars like talk-marathons, as if to talk was to write. Also, Napkin three is wrong. Probably for Goran, too, drinking had larger meanings.

More Notes on Bar Napkins

I have to think that Daly is Lester’s fictional counterpart. What Nick Adams was to Hemingway. There are too many similarities in tone, voice. The simple folk wisdom, discontent, fatigue, and desire to help the poor, no matter how hazardous that might be.

*

Some of Lester’s writing is classy in the way only Lester Goran can be classy. At one point in the book, Daly Racklin and his friends go to New York to see Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. However, after failing to stand the heat and the crowds they quit and decide to watch it on TV instead and order out for prostitutes.

It’s the kind of scene that Lester would write. In some ways, that scene is Lester Goran.

*

 

In class, Lester would write rules — things we could and couldn’t do. We couldn’t use flashbacks. Flashbacks, he said, bog down the narrative. And of course this novel has plenty of flashbacks.

*

By 1968, the Order of the Hibernians, Division Nine, is gone. It’s a memory that appears periodically. No more Irish Club. No more center of Lester’s universe. Or did I get this wrong. Maybe Daly was the center of the universe and the Irish Club was only one place out of many. I have to think that the reference to the club in the book was confusing to most readers, as were many of the references to characters and places. Only if you’re a regular to Lester’s particular establishment did it all make sense.

*

 

The name of “Right Racklin” is a burden. Daly didn’t always find helping others easy. As Lester writes, “he would be the Right Racklin, but what to do with it, having not the energy or the will for too great a portion of goodness or even the contemplation of its burdens” (p. 87).

*

 

Why does Daly see visions of Pretty Boy Floyd the gangster, an old criminal he used to read about in the library, and Michelle Shortall sees visions of Daly’s father? I guess ghosts aren’t really supposed to make sense anyway. If they did, they would lose some of their mystery.

*

There is no end to other people’s sorrows. Daly thinks at one point in the story, “This is my year at last, done with the rut of the old Right Racklin, like a plow horse on an endless field of others’ sorrows” (p. 112-113). A very beautiful line.

 

*

 

I spread all these ideas out on the counter. Some are written on napkins, others on old receipts, others are written on little bits of scrap paper that used to be my short stories when I was in high school.

 

No hope for me as a book reviewer. Still hope for me as a TV writer.

 

Fathers and Sons

 

I tell Lester as I sit in his bar that Boyce Racklin reminds me of my dad. He couldn’t stop helping people. He was a saint, a folk hero — but to his family, he was always a more ambiguous character. Too much of a do-gooder to do himself very much good.

 

Lester sees right through me. “You’re writing this damn slop to avoid writing about your dad, aren’t you?”

 

And my mom. But that’s not the point.

The story of how Boyce Racklin became the mythologized “Right” Racklin is on page 14 of the book.

“Don’t worry,” I tell Lester, “I won’t give it away. But I can’t help the feeling that this is my dad you’re writing about. One Christmas I find all the toys in my house gone. It turned out that my dad had donated them all to some children who had no gifts for Christmas. The kids got gifts and I got robbed.”

Lester doesn’t seem amused.

Fathers and legacies. Was Boyce Racklin a hero up until the end? Did he jump into the river to save some girl or was it a suicide? That’s the question.

“A million indignities follow the man or woman who gives himself to the poor,” I tell Lester. He still doesn’t seem amused. He also seems unimpressed with the rate of my drinking.

“I thought you were going to write this review essay about me. Here you are talking about yourself.”

“I learned from the best,” I quip and get what has to be, at best, my second or third smile of the night.

 

“I want to change venues,” I tell him.

“I want to go to Gotsubo in Nagasaki. My old hangout.”

He remains quiet. Who knows if he can even exist in a place beside some conjuring of his old haunts in Oakland. Perhaps there is no place for him where his spirit can rest other than the places he created for himself in his fiction.

 

Arrival at Gotsubo

 

A novel about a bunch of ordinary never-do-wellers, scratching around, getting more wrong than right. Many of the scenes take place in bars with characters telling each other stories that expand the universe of the novel.

 

If I were to write something like this, it would take place in Nagasaki, at Gotsubo. Samantha the English teacher would be trying to teach the owner, Kentaro, Spanish, and people would be telling stories about Sam-the-boxer, how he broke Gavin’s jaw while he was still a learner for reasons that may or may not have had to do with his philandering lifestyle. How Sam eventually lost half of his brain in a surfing accident in California, and how all this came up about a year or two after most people moved away from Nagasaki and then one person returned.

 

It would go something like that.

But I would never write something like that. Lester Goran always thought there was something sacred about these happenings, the interconnectedness of people and the stories told from person to person. He also believed in universes populated by pubs and bars.

I’ve had alcoholics in my family. I find such places shallow haunts — as unsacred as Gloria Scone and her New Age religious nonsense. Bars and pubs are for people without imagination. I’m not sure that people actually care about the other people they drink with. They might. There might be sacred happenings in between sips of white wine.

There is a small bar area at Gotsubo, right in front of the booths, where parties of five or more usually sit and wile away their time with talk. The talk is in Japanese, and is of no concern to Lester.

 

But as soon as he meets Kentaro, the owner/ bartender, it’s like I’ve become a ghost to them. Kentaro and Lester talk on and on into the hours, free cups of sake and shochu for all of Lester’s stories, and though Lester is the one talking most of the time, he finally finds me and tells me, “I can hear him perfectly. Why don’t you speak like that? I can barely hear a word you’re saying. With him everything comes out loud and clear. He could have been Irish!”

 

“Tell me a story,” he says. “Tell me something that happened at this bar.”

 

I suppose there are a few. The time I took my brother here. The time, right after I first got here, when one of the new guys was trying to decide whether to stay or whether to leave the country.

 

“There was this time, I met the ghost of my dead writing teacher…”

 

But I can tell I’m boring him because he naturally starts to talk to Kentaro again.

 

The Less Said the Better

Two fanatical women make up the villains of this tale: Ruth Marie, his sister, a woman who believes that she is a saint and opposes Daly’s love for a blind woman; and Gloria Scone, a femme fatale, beautiful woman, but also New Age crank, who has married several times before, is rich, and believes that she has telekinetic powers that can make airplanes fall from skies.

“What do you want me to say about these two villains?”

“The less said the better.”

“Based on real life acquaintances?” I ask.

“Real enough and scary enough in fiction. That much nonsense from any human being could kill an elephant.”

And so it could.

 

As I look out the window, I’m sure I can see the shadow of two women conspiring against us.

 

Lester was the Reason…

 

Lester was the reason I never pursued my MFA in creative writing. It was kind of the plan all along, and then one day after class he asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I told him, and he said, “But you’re so damned serious. An MFA isn’t a place for serious people.”

 

Well, he was one of the reasons. Another reason was that he was right: I was serious. I saw the university as a serious place for the most serious kind of work. It’s like going to seminary to goof off instead of search for God. I really did believe in universities as a place for betterment.

 

And I didn’t want to spend my time around people who didn’t take themselves seriously. (I also can’t spend my time around people who take themselves too seriously).

 

There was another novel Goran wrote Unnatural Expectations that was unpublished at the time of his death. I’m sure I read a short story in The Outlaws of the Purple Cow by the same name about a young woman playwright who keeps on writing despite her dimming hopes for the future.

What is a writer? Someone who believes in the triumph of hope over experience (or reality)?

 

Unnatural expectations — perhaps that’s where his meanness came from. But perhaps also a kind of grace. A warning to all future writers not to hope too much and to get normal jobs.

 

A Sucker for Small Good Things

 

I’m a sucker for small good things, both in the world and in fiction. For this reason, I found this scene to be my favorite. It describes some of Daly and Jessie’s last days together. The relationship between Daly and Jessie is perhaps one of the sweetest and most enjoyable ones in the book:

 

He [Daly Racklin] went to St. Agnes weekly for Mass and with Jessie to the Carnegie International Art Gallery on Forbes and described the paintings to her. They walked in the presence of the Manets and he stood with her before the water lilies and sought words to make real for her the immensity of the artist’s vision, only flowers on a pond after all. He kept his voice low. He felt people listened as he talked, and he and she were not a show. She listened intently, nodding. She remembered the paintings. Explaining them, choosing the tone of voice, inflections, and exact phrases, he had never been closer to paint and brush and canvas as he bent low to murmur into Jessie’s ear the lines and colors of genius. The paintings achieved an importance and he with them a size as he translated them into images in her mind. He kissed her often. She had moved him, as always, in their being together, into somehow feeling more important than he was without her. [p. 262]

 

It’s a single paragraph that could be a story unto itself. It’s not the ending of the book, but it’s a kind of happy ending for Daly, and perhaps for Lester too. I came to this review to speak both good and ill of the dead, and to make words living again. To seek a kind of closure that leaves books of his open for all. Perhaps, I have done that. Perhaps not, but there is Daly and Jessie together in an art museum, in love in 1968. And here I am, on a Saturday in 2015 — and I get to live there too.

 

Perhaps that makes Lester feel more important than he would be without me (or without you).

 

The Eternal Irish Club

 

Lester is passed out. As it turned out, even though he was someone I conjured from my own imagination, it was really someone like Kentaro he wanted to talk to.

 

I ask Kentaro, “What did you guys talk about?”

 

He surprises me, “He mostly talked about Miami. He said it was a great place to live. And he talked about his time at the university. He loved his students!”

 

That surprises me. In the end, maybe he did have a few stories about Miami. Maybe he was just too sober to tell them.

 

Gotsubo was where I wanted to take him, but I couldn’t take him there long. Some of my own ghosts are there, and he was not one for that world.

 

I manage to get him into a taxi.

 

The directions are easy enough: “The Ancient Order of Hibernians, Number 9.”

 

The taxi driver seems to know where to take him.

 

I’ll sit with him in the taxi and see that he gets there, though it’s a place I’m not sure I’ll recognize. Even after reading many of his stories, I’m not sure I have a clear picture of the place.

 

I try to remember Lester Goran kindly, not with charity, but with admiration doused in sober truth — or as much truth as my two or so semesters with him will allow.

 

I think of how everything in Oakland passed through Daly “Right” Racklin, like he was the conduit, the arteries of this neighborhood. How you couldn’t take the Pittsburgh out of Racklin.

 

You could put Lester in Miami, in a cushy job, in the sheltered space of a university, but you couldn’t take the Pittsburgh out of Lester.

 

Is that right? Who knows. Everything right and wrong with Lester was going to be right here in this cab.

 

I had taken Lester to Gotsubo in Nagasaki, but he was as stubborn dead as he was alive. The entire time I was there showing him Gotsubo, talking about characters there, he was probably living in the Irish Club. I guess that’s okay. I guess there is a kind of naturalness to this order.

 

Will I get to know more of Lester’s work? Not for now. For now, I need to let him sleep. When we get to the Irish Club, I’ll wake him up because only he’ll know if we have arrived.

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