From Sobaski’s Stairway to the Irish Club: Lester Goran’s Pittsburgh

Lester Goran c. 1959American writer and Contrappasso contributor Lester Goran died aged 85 on February 6, 2014. This week the University of Miami is celebrating Goran’s life and work – and his legacy to his many thousands of creative writing students – with Goran’s Gifts, a series of events.

Our extensive 2008 interview with Goran begins HERE.

To coincide with this celebration, we are republishing Matthew Asprey Gear’s long unavailable scholarly essay on two of Lester Goran’s most important novels. This paper was first presented at the Interdisciplinary Themes conference on The City: Culture, Society, Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada (November 6-7, 2009). An earlier version of this text appeared in Interdisciplinary Themes Journal 1.1 (2009).

Download a PDF version.

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FROM SOBASKI’S STAIRWAY TO THE IRISH CLUB: LESTER GORAN’S PITTSBURGH

Matthew Asprey Gear

lestergoran

Lester Goran, Miami 2008. Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear.

“From the new interstate highways, to the popularization of television, to the excision of old neighbourhoods through urban renewal programs, the impact upon everyday life was profound. Perceptions of time and space, bodily rhythms, and experiences of speed, distance and density were destroyed and remade no less palpably than the metropolitan fabric.”

– Edward Dimendberg (2004, 8)

Lester Goran (1928-2014), published eight novels and three short story collections. He may be best known as a late-period translator of Isaac Bashevis Singer[1], as well as Singer’s teaching associate at the University of Miami; this experience was memorialised in Goran’s The Bright Streets of Surfside (1993).

There has been little critical attention paid to Goran’s fiction. Apart from an unpublished PhD thesis submitted in 1972 by Frederick M. Johnson to the University of Alabama, and an extended consideration of Goran’s Irish Club stories by Patrick Meanor in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, contemporaneous newspaper reviews of Goran’s books constitute the body of critical material.

Although resident in Miami for more than fifty years, Goran wrote again and again about two distinct neighbourhoods of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Sobaski’s Stairway and Oakland. Goran’s imaginative recreations of the slum of Sobaski’s Stairway (his lightly fictionalised Hill District) and the Irish neighbourhoods of Oakland (represented with geographical fidelity) constitute an ignored trove of postwar American urban writing. This paper examines Goran’s life-long attempts to map this evolving urban space in his fiction, and will situate his work in the tradition of American urban realism.

The Hill District of Pittsburgh is a historic centre of African-American culture. To the poet Claude McKay, the Hill District from 1930-1950 was “the crossroads of the world” (Clemetson 2002). Many legendary jazz musicians grew up there including Art Blakey, Errol Garner, Billy Eckstine, and Lena Horne (Toker 1986, 232). Lester Goran was a schoolmate of the saxophonist Stanley Turrentine (Goran 2010). The Hill was the birthplace of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson who used the district for the setting of his century-spanning ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle (1982-2005). Goran once worked in a pawn shop across the street from Wilson’s house (Goran 2008).

Goran spent his early years in the Hill slums of the 5th and 3rd wards. The Gorans were Jewish in this predominately African-American neighbourhood (Goran 2008). Jews had arrived on The Hill as part of a population of Central and Eastern European immigrants in the 1880s. The population of The Hill would become “entirely black [by] the 1940s” (Toker 1986, 234). As a child, Goran witnessed this transformation:

After a while there weren’t any real number of white families that were a coherent, distinct family unit anybody could identify with. Most of the families left there were pretty dysfunctional. As a matter of fact dysfunctionality would probably be about four steps up from where they were, because many of them were mad enough to be incarcerated. These were some crazy white people left in yards and left in cellars… It would be a very dramatic story to tell you that we were the last to go. We weren’t. There were three or four more disorganised people left behind. For all I know they’re still there. (Goran 2008)

Goran eventually moved with his family to Terrace Village, east of the Middle Hill, very close to the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland (Meanor 2001, 154). Addison Terrace, where the events of the novel Maria Light take place, was a housing block in this vicinity, above the “iron city” with its “rivet-knotted bridges and scarred telephone poles, the flapping posters…” (Goran 1962, 27). At $14 million dollars, Terrace Village was the second largest government housing project of its time. President Roosevelt opened part of the project in 1940. Franklin Toker (1986, 241) describes Terrace Village as “an enclave that was detached from the street grids of Oakland and The Hill, so that the development became an orphan to both of the older centres.” Nevertheless, as of 1986 Toker judged the project a success, in contrast to St Louis’s notoriously failed Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

To Goran, his professional career

isn’t the story about a guy who worked his way up from a government housing project. I often have to explain this to my friends. ‘Say what a story this is! A guy coming from a government housing project and teaching college and writing all these books…’ Wait. The government housing project was the happy ending to where I came from. (Goran 2008)

At the beginning of his literary career Goran reimagined The Hill as Greendale, an area almost exclusively referred to as ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’, named for the despised prohibition-era character Metro Sobaski who sells moonshine on one of the district’s many wooden stairways. Sobaski’s Stairway is the setting of The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue (1960), and appears in the background of two early Oakland novels by Goran: Maria Light (1962) and The Stranger in the Snow (1966). In the earliest novel, Goran sets out the lay of the land circa 1931:

The twisting slum of small wooden frame houses, cobblestoned alleys, speak-easies, brothels, and brown tenements, sneaking around and converging on Mechanic Avenue, was the particular place meant by most outsiders when they spoke of Sobaski’s Stairway. The famous landmark, a rendezvous for a generation of bootleggers, was at Fifteenth Street where the slum ended and the worked-out mounds began. (Goran 1960, 4)

In The Paratrooper, the neighbourhood is depicted with vividly specific detail: we learn the names of streets (Pig Alley, Our Way, Riverspoon St), bars (Freddie’s, DeAngelo’s), and other establishments (Top Dollar Sammy’s, Bosco the Processor, Professor Chandu’s Health Store, Pop’s Cut-rate, Novakovitch’s Pool Hall). These locations are fictional, and there’s no point trying to make exact correspondences between the real Hill and its fictional double. Goran told me his reason for not using real locations in this book—as he does so extensively in his subsequent work—was “because I didn’t want the book attached to me. The characters in that book were not my mother and father… They were an amalgam of a certain kind of underclass life that I was aware of because I grew up around it” (Goran 2008). Nevertheless the historical circumstances of the fictional Stairway are closely modelled on those of The Hill.

After a century of demands for housing reform, nation-wide urban conditions worsened significantly with the onset of the Great Depression. New construction and repairs stopped, slums expanded, and foreclosures increased to the rate of a thousand homes a day in 1933. Emergency legislation was passed to deal with these problems. Ultimately the housing policies established in the New Deal era “embodied, on a limited scale for the most part, virtually all the approaches to housing that had been suggested by urban planners and reformers during the preceding twenty years: the conservative policies of mortgage insurance and loans to limited-dividend housing companies, as well as relatively more radical approaches of slum clearance and garden cities” (Glaab & Brown 1967, 299-302).

Like many American inner-cities, Pittsburgh was subject to a grand project of slum clearance or ‘urban renewal’. Pittsburgh’s first phase of this project came to be known as Renaissance I (1946-73). The city has been characterized as “the greatest exemplar of urban renaissance during the first decade following World War II” (Teaford 1990, 108). The Gateway Center (1952-1953) was an office complex on the site of the downtown Point at the junction of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. Constructed on ground previously occupied by “railroad yards and shabby warehouses”, the Gateway Center was a celebrated addition to the Pittsburgh skyline, so much so that a 1959 Holiday magazine article was titled ‘Pittsburgh: The City That Quick-Changed from Unbelievable Ugliness to Shining Beauty in Less Than Half a Generation’. This project was a joint municipal, state and private endeavour rather than part of the federal urban renewal program (Teaford 1990, 109).

Federal-funded projects were less successful. According to Franklin Toker:

The reconstruction of the Lower Hill began in 1955 with $17 million in federal grants. In an area of 100 acres, 1,300 buildings housing 413 businesses and 8,000 residents (a majority of them black) were displaced… Even were one to overlook the devastating social impact of the Lower Hill redevelopment, its success could only be judged as minor… the major cause of its failure was the animosity between the developers and the black community. When that animosity boiled over as part of the nationwide racial riots of 1968, Pittsburgh’s dream of a cultural acropolis on the Lower Hill ended. (Toker 1986, 234)

The Civic Arena, an opera venue built in 1962, and its attendant parking lots, effectively replaced the entire Lower Hill (Toker 1986, 235). Edward K Muller calls “the Lower Hill project…a classic example of an urban renewal failure” (Muller 2006, 11).

This was not a unique case in postwar development. In the early 1970s the urban historian Sam Bass Warner criticised the results of ‘urban renewal’ policies across the United States. He wrote that “municipal officials and commercial interests turned the ten-billion-dollar program into an irresponsible social monster”. Warner partially blames the “metropolitan dysfunction of the property tax” for turning policy against working class communities; municipal tax revenue was dependent on high property values, which meant middle-class residents. With over a million working class housing units destroyed across the country as of 1967, only 5% of housing approvals in the projects had been for low-income public housing. Under the direction of “inner-city business interests and reform-minded moderates who were unaware of the future consequences of ‘urban renewal’, or who wanted to protect their own neighbourhoods against the poor and the black,” ‘urban renewal’ left landscapes of “refurbished downtowns, sports stadia, new government and corporate office towers, and slabs of high-rise luxury apartments.” To Warner, these landscapes “stand in shameless witness to the callousness of American class and race relations” (Warner 1972, 243-244).

Although Goran now describes the inhabitants of Pittsburgh’s Hill as “a people without any kind of distinctive connection to their neighbourhood…You just lived there and you got out of there and moved somewhere else,” he is still ambivalent about the destruction of the neighbourhood: “It was a rotten, miserable slum and it should have been torn down but at the same time at what loss to us? At what loss to our lives did you take away our decrepit… boards and take away our whole culture?” He compares the process of ‘urban renewal’ to the destructions of the shtetls of Europe. “[The authorities] simply despatch[ed] us with far more gentility, far more kindness, but by the same token at the end of it [left] the kind of emptiness of a plain where nothing will grow” (Goran 2008).

 paratrooper

The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue is set in the context of such a project of ill-fated ‘urban renewal’. The novel is the story of Ike-o, a slum child born to a Polish immigrant woman and Charlie Hartwell, a man from a dubiously “distinguished American family” (Goran 1960, 66). Ike-o is born in a communal toilet in a tenement in the winter of 1931 during the worst deprivations of the Great Depression. Several early chapters focus on Charlie’s alcoholism and friendship with his drinking partner Thadeus “Fats” Smolcher, a Polish immigrant. Smolcher is the father of daughters with “reputations for promiscuity” (59). We’re also introduced to O. C. “Catfish” Gedunsky, a charismatic Democratic Party deal-maker, who is hated by the racist, antisemitic Charlie for his supposed progressive politics. Miss Fireman, a Sobaski’s Stairway charity worker, helps negotiate a series of truces between Charlie and his wife.

As a teenager, Ike-o begins courting Smolcher’s daughter Dolly. Goran lets us see the demographically changing neighbourhood from their perspective: “Negroes had infiltrated Sobaski’s Stairway, house by house, street by street; the Polish, Syrians, Jews and Italians were fleeing as if the new immigrants constituted the army of a hostile country” (65-66). Goran does not attempt to provide a black perspective on this era of The Hill’s history. (Fortunately, August Wilson devoted much of his working life to that very project.)

Ike-o soon takes to visiting a black whorehouse—even going on the payroll to steer high school traffic its way—all the while idealising Dolly’s virginity. Later he is arrested for helping Gedunsky run a profitable gangbang in a secluded courtyard. After his high school graduation, Ike-o joins the army, still betrothed to Dolly despite his father’s objections. As he departs Sobaski’s Stairway by train, Ike-o muses on the neighbourhood:

There had been a rumor in the newspapers that Sobaski’s Stairway, all one hundred and ninety-five acres, was going to be torn down by a Pennsylvania state redevelopment commission. Ike-o watched the passing street lights, the gray buildings muffled in color by the late light until they looked like stored-away furniture with sheets on them. There had been rumours that Sobaski’s Stairway was going to be torn down since he was a boy. The tenements had been condemned for years, but there was not enough room yet in the federal housing developments for the people of Greendale; they lived on in the leaky, drafty old buildings. He saw a bum vomiting before Freddie’s. He saw the bum wipe his mouth with his sleeve and stagger in the growing darkness back down Mechanic Avenue. Ike-o thought that the rumor was not true. (99)

While Ike-o is away from the Stairway, Dolly sleeps with a football player and falls pregnant. She is also beaten and nearly raped by a security guard. Meanwhile, after some initial success in army life, and much promiscuity characterised by physical abuse of his girlfriends, Ike-o comes to fear the prospect of fighting in Korea. He sabotages his own health to avoid deployment. Ultimately he is confined to a mental ward. All this time “Ike-o held on to the thought of Dolly as other men in the [mental] ward huddled over crucifixes, believing, believing” (117). Ike-o is unsure himself whether he is faking mental illness or truly sick. His efforts to return to duty are rebuffed, and Ike-o descends into a long period of depression. When the prospect of Korean service is really at hand, Ike-o panics and pushes a colonel down a flight of stairs. After two months in the stockade, he is dishonourably discharged. He comes back to Sobaski’s Stairway in army surplus paratrooper boots, telling fraudulent stories of his military career which nobody, certainly not his mother, seem to believe. These false stories have no consequences at all. By now ‘urban renewal’ is well under way, and Goran maps the rapid and irreversible change to this urban landscape through the unique perspective of his protagonist.

Robert Alter’s term for the variety of techniques authors have employed to represent the subjective experience of the modern urban landscape is experiential realism (Alter 2005). Goran’s experiential realism is in most ways stylistically consonant with James T. Farrell and the ‘slum novel’ tradition. But one should not overlook Goran’s perhaps unlikely debt to Henry James, the great chronicler of the American upper class. Goran told me, “I don’t think Henry James and my subjects pick up that well but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I tried to do from the beginning.” Goran felt an affinity to the loneliness at the crux of James’ work, which he believed middle-class critics could not comprehend. Goran’s work represents a significant departure from the traditional slum novel in other ways. He told me about his disenchantment with the “endless insistence” of writers like Farrell on the meaningfulness of ideological left-wing politics in the slums, which Goran’s people distrusted with their customary scepticism (Goran 2008). And what is most unique about The Paratrooper as an urban slum novel is Goran’s choice of protagonist. This has consequences for both the uniqueness and the effectiveness of this novel.

It is instructive to contrast Goran’s Ike-o Hartwell with the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s immense picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March (1953). For Augie March, the chaos of the modern city—even the slum—is all possibility. Growing up poor in Depression-era Chicago, Augie boisterously navigates the city’s emerging technologies of public and private transport, its modern buildings, its teeming streets. He “touch[es] all sides” (Bellow 1995, 132) of society from the criminal to the ruling class. These experiences, specifically rooted in the circumstances of Chicago’s urban development, provoke all manner of arcane philosophical speculation. With the city as mentor, Augie March may be the ultimate twentieth century American bildungsroman, and the defining urban novel of its era.

Goran writes not just of another industrial city but of an entirely different sensibility. Ike-o Hartwell is a grim and charmless character. He is not particularly self-aware, able to express himself to others (or to himself), nor in possession of any particular agency beyond his idealised desire for Dolly. We are told that as a young man “Ike-o’s thoughts went round in circles; they sometimes left him exhausted. He brooded a great deal, not knowing even where to begin thinking about some things, like his family or sex or Sobaski’s Stairway… He watched most things jealously, through gray eyes speckled with red dots and envy for people better poised than he was, better dressed, or better looking” (Goran 1960, 67).

Contemporary criticisms of the book focused on the protagonist. Charles Poore of the daily New York Times noted that Ike-o has a “general aura of unlovableness to which the plot of the novel sentences him” and “takes to a life of odd-lot crime with a somewhat numbing aptness” (Poore 1960). William Wise wrote in the New York Times Book Review that “the author’s principal failure… is with Ike-o Hartwell, the pivotal figure of his novel… Ike-o’s thoughts or feelings are expressed far too often in a murky prose which confuses rather than clarifies; too often he remains a shadowy figure, his passions, yearnings, and terrors either unexpressed or uncommunicated” (Wise 1960).

But perhaps some of this perceived failing is inevitable, indeed quite inextricable from Goran’s project. Ike-o is an archetypal Pittsburgh street character. Goran’s intentions with Ike-o are quoted on the first edition dust jacket: Ike-o “is a myth, a representative figure for all the ugly, hostile people who are searching for something that will not bite them” (Goran 1960). Today Goran reflects that Ike-o had “no capacity for talking at all, he had no way of explaining his sense of loss” (Goran 2008).

Comparing his slum characters to Bellow’s, Goran told me

[Bellow is] more a creator of wise guys than real street guys. I mean, I’m sure they exist on some level in Chicago but the guys that I knew [in Pittsburgh] weren’t like that. They weren’t like guys in Philip Roth. These were guys who were so inward. There wasn’t any of them who were Delphic expressionistic people who would talk beautifully in a kind of Bellow language about things. This is not to say I’m condemning Bellow for it. He’s an artist, he’s created a whole world in himself. But it doesn’t really from my point of view, any more than Roth, have anything to do with the way life is lived or the way life is understood by the people… they’re writing about. (Goran 2008)

The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue can be seen as an attempt to reconcile realistic characters of a slum milieu with the conventions of the novel.

Goran utilises a third person voice that is sometimes omniscient but mostly filtered through the perceptions of Ike-o. He has rarely used the first person in his work. Goran says of the third person, “I find a greater latitude for a certain kind of subjective imposition of your voice” (Goran 2008). Certainly the language of The Paratrooper is furnished with a richness that is beyond Ike-o’s faculties, although it generally cleaves to the limitations and peculiarities of his consciousness.

In any case, if Ike-o as a character is sometimes obscure, despite—or due to—our access to his thoughts, his subjectivity nevertheless maps the flux of a slum undergoing ‘urban renewal’. Although at first something of a striver—Ike-o “liked history; he studied it more than the other school subjects. It gave him a feeling that life was bigger and broader and deeper than Sobaski’s Stairway” (72)—Ike-o never really develops a sophisticated vision of the world outside himself, a political, social, economic context for postwar urban change. Gedunsky, despite his political position, is no mentor in this field. As such, Ike-o can only observe his decaying, disappearing neighbourhood through the specifics in his immediate vicinity. Ike-o’s focus is usually on everything at his paratrooper boots.

Happy to be back home, he discovers that the houses of Smolcher and Gedunsky have been razed.

Ike-o inhaled early dusk on Mechanic Avenue with a sense of anticipation. He stood squarely in his paratrooper boots at the corner of Second Avenue and Mechanic Avenue and breathed in happiness as well as brick dust with every breath. First Avenue still remained, there were two churches there whose congregations had failed appeals: but Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, along with the alley tributaries of Our Way, Castle Road, Henderson Way, and McCully Place, were not.

Where they had been was a huge torn-up field of piled rubble, bricks, and lumber, and a rickety low wooden fence ran around the entire five-block area. (137)

Ike-o asks around for Dolly’s whereabouts and then:

An uneasiness came into Ike-o’s good feelings: so it was happening, Sobaski’s Stairway—the blighted business area on Mechanic Avenue fit only for store-front religions and gypsies, saloons, pawnshops, poolrooms, and postage stamp delicatessens, and the perennially condemned tenements—was being decimated. But Sobaski’s Stairway was not a layed-out corpse yet. Over there, at Seventh Street and Mechanic Avenue, there started the same forest of fire escapes and amusement park posters, and clean wash hung from the windows of tenements.

Ike-o strolled happily again up Mechanic Avenue through uneven rows of dark milk-box loafers and orange-crate humbugs. He smelled yesterday’s garbage on the afternoon fog and listened to the sound his boots made thumping on the old cracked sidewalk. (138)

That strangely abrupt adverb “happily”! Ike-o has found his fiancé’s house demolished, her whereabouts unknown, and throughout this experience has only fleeting responses to the destruction of the neighbourhood. Yet that very evening, after getting drunk and screaming “I never did anything right in my life!” into the “quiet darkness” (140), we read about Ike-o’s emotional dependence on the familiar sounds of the Stairway: “…footsteps on concrete and far away a streetcar and somewhere a water faucet dripping” (152). This noise helps him sleep.

Dolly’s betrayal of Ike-o—she now has an illegitimate son—destroys their hopes for a life together. Ike-o finds employment with a salvage company and a construction gang, so that “each day, under his boots and heavy matted gloves, there was less to Sobaski’s Stairway.” Missionaries “had been forced by the state redevelopment commission to drift away like mortar dust in a strong wind to seek other sinners… their windows now hung shattered and disembodied and lonesome for the armies of hopheads, darbs, and alcoholics who no longer washed them at fifty cents a day on the ugly quicksand road to rehabilitation.” In a poignant scene, Mrs Fireman, aged and ill, her charity centre demolished, settles for an abandoned temporary construction shack on the old site. She sits there, “observing the world from her rightful place.” Ike-o “[hacks] away at the spent, disinherited brown earth… as if the ground had harmed him or was the cause of his misery” (178-181). Ironically, Ike-o’s job helps finance the purchase of a statue to place over his father’s grave, a memorial to an already forgotten life lived in the razed streets.

Ike-o and Dolly toy with reunion, but Ike-o is unable to reconcile with her sexual betrayal. Directly after their first mature sexual encounter, he beats her in public. His attempts at revenge, according to the New York Times, “[deteriorate] into a dreary sort of sadism marinated in young Hartwell’s infinite capacity for self-pity” (Poore 1960). The novel concludes anticlimactically, or perhaps simply within the possibilities of the milieu. Realising he no longer loves her, Ike-o pays his “big debt” (Goran 1960, 242) by insulting Dolly in an extravagant, ersatz-macho manner. He hopes this will convince her he is beyond redemption. In his mind, this will allow Dolly to move on and marry her old, unattractive fiancé.

The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue is indeed, as Charles Poore labelled it, “resolutely grim”. In Goran’s later stories of Oakland, his characters live in a startling synchronicity with their streets and landmarks, the city the skeleton of their community, and suffer mightily from the neighbourhood’s slow obliteration. The Stairway dwellers in Paratrooper ultimate lack the ability to comprehend the destruction of their district. Their overwhelming concerns are elemental—financial survival, alcoholism, everyday violence. In the Oakland stories, as we shall see, the wrecking ball becomes a recognised enemy. Those who left Sobaski’s Stairway before ‘urban renewal’ and prevailed are mentioned in Goran’s later novel The Stranger in the Snow: “By 1945 most of [Harry] Myers’ people who had not died had retreated to Oakland, the survivors of a tattered army routed by Urban Redevelopment but now fat with electric refrigerators not wooden iceboxes, full-length mirrors on their bedroom doors and nylon carpeting not linoleum in their living rooms” (Goran, 3). But the “crazy white people left in yards and left in cellars” doomed to the last days of the Stairway never really fathom what is happening.

Paratrooper is a testament to Goran’s commitment to memorialising the lives of the “ugly hostile people” in the slums. If the novel is sometimes frustrating because of the “murky prose” representing Ike-o’s interior world—and because of an unremitting bleakness that allows for only a minor transformation of its protagonist—it is nevertheless a vivid mapping of the Pittsburgh slum in decay and ‘urban renewal’.

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Goran had published six novels through 1971. The outstanding but now almost unknown comic novels The Candy Butchers Farewell (1964) and The Keeper of Secrets (1971) are set for the most part outside Pittsburgh. The murder story The Demon in the Sun Parlor (1968) is set in Miami. Although he continued to write, Goran’s fiction did not again appear in print—with the exception of two commercial paperback ‘saga’ novels—until 1985’s Mrs Beautiful, which reimagines the brutal strikes at McKees Rocks in 1909. In the late 1990s Goran re-emerged with three cycles of Oakland short stories: Tales From The Irish Club (1996), She Loved Me Once and other stories (1997) and Outlaws of the Purple Cow and other stories (1999), and a closely-related novel, Bing Crosbys Last Song (1998). Set variously from the Depression to the 1970s, these works are anchored by the presence of the drinking club of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Local No. 9, on Oakland Avenue (a fictionalised version of this Irish Club appeared in Maria Light as the Irish-American Friendship Society). At the Irish Club the act of storytelling sustains the community. Patrick Meanor has compared Goran’s story cycles to those of John Steinbeck and Sherwood Anderson, where “the redemptive power of narrative that temporarily creates a timeless, Edenic realm of hope and promise saves both the tellers and the listeners in all these collections from the fallen world of time” (Meanor 2001, 154).

Goran did not return to the subject of Sobaski’s Stairway/The Hill. Oakland is only a few miles east of the Hill but according to Goran possessed a completely different cultural sensibility:

[Oakland] was a neighbourhood that was as solid as a cathedral. These were Irish Catholics who believed in a purpose of life that was going to be fulfilled by adherence to certain ways of looking and thinking about things. One of the great things about writing about [the Irish] was the fact that they were so easily jarred out of their illusions by the realities of what other people were like or what they were like themselves. A person in [The Hill] would never be startled by what they were capable of… There would be no guilt, nothing, they just would forget about it. But in Oakland this was a people for whom memory was a very, very important part of coping with life. (Goran 2008)

Oakland, an area of seven hundred acres, a recipient of the philanthropy of Schenley, Carnegie, Mellon and others, has been called Pittsburgh’s “nerve centre of education and culture” (Toker 1986, 79). Toker speculates that Oakland was originally intended to replicate the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition which “took American by storm in its lavishness, its bold scale of planning, and the grandeur of its look-alike Imperial Roman Buildings… the buildings and the streets of Oakland concretized the vision of a more glorious America that had been fleetingly raised in Chicago” (Toker 1986, 81). Oakland continues to this day to be the cultural centre of Pittsburgh. But the Oakland of Goran’s stories is that of the working class Irish community, which is disconnected from the academic realms of the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute. Goran’s stories are set in the Irish Club, and in saloons, churches, old houses, and government housing projects such as Terrace Village. It is a world of melancholy remembrance, ghosts, and the mythical transformation of the mundane.

In his introduction to Tales from the Irish Club, Goran says: “No one except a fiction writer would want to perpetuate a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time” (Goran 1996, xii). The Oaklanders of 1965—the year the Irish Club closed—are characterised by Goran as seeing their “manners and ways of thinking about things [as] eternal… caught in a time of long, slow twilight, lit in the rose and gold of certainty and things in place.” But in actuality this world is at an end. None of the people who drank at the Irish Club “knew we were living at the end of a period of time as gone now as the Weimar Republic or the Soviet Union” (Goran 1996, xi). Elsewhere Goran writes that “we could not dream of our approaching separation from each other or our houses sitting with boarded-up windows and tin cans, broken bottles, and abandoned automobile tires in the front yards, our streets dissected into new configurations, as if we had lost a war” (Goran 1997, xii).

Bing Crosby’s Last Song expands on the short story ‘Evenings With The Right Racklin’ from the She Loved Me Once collection. The novel is set in the pivotal American year of 1968 in the midst of race riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Its characters have a remarkable physical synchronicity with Oakland and suffer as the places to which they orientate themselves slowly disappear. Indeed, by now even the Irish Club has closed its doors. Here it is not ‘urban renewal’ that is wiping out the old neighbourhood, but the expansion of the University of Pittsburgh. Goran’s characters live in the vicinity of the university but most have nothing to do with the institution; in fact, there is a marked antagonism.

bingThe protagonist of Bing Crosby’s Last Song, Daly Racklin, is a lifelong Oakland resident and attorney-at-law (how he came by his qualifications is not explained). He confesses he has never been inside the university. Even though Goran himself attended the university on the G.I. Bill and graduated with an M.A. in 1960, in his fiction he is almost exclusively interested in characters alien to the academy:

I see things through their eyes mostly because I was like them. I wasn’t like any kind of intellectual or a guy who even liked the company of intellectuals. I wound up teaching college almost fifty years and I still don’t like it. I still don’t like the kind of pretences towards superiority. (Goran 2008)

The novel begins as Daly “Right” Racklin is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. He is a dependable community leader, even to the point of masochism. He inherited the role from his father, the first “Right” Racklin—the name too was “transferred like a royal title” (Goran 1998, 14)—whose goodness has become a local myth. Daly has had conversations for years with a bartender at the Metropole about the senior Racklin. One night Daly realises that the bartender has had another man in mind all the time. Rather than be annoyed, Daly feels a strange solace: “why, the two of us are celebrating goodness that doesn’t need a man attached, goodness so pure in the air that it inhabits one man or another, no matter… Outside the night wore shoes of iron, but in here there were good men to spare” (25).

Like most of Goran’s Oaklanders, Daly’s life is deeply rooted in the neighbourhood:

All places not Oakland were not real to [Daly]. He had learned from geography that he belonged somewhere more than anywhere else. And, he knew with age, there were people who did not feel they belonged anywhere at all. Or needed to go somewhere else to feel that the place they had come from was where they really belonged.

When he was away from the streets of Oakland he had only been putting in time till he could return to beloved landmarks of memory… Daly supposed he would never be able to casually pass like a vague shadow over a foreign street and claim kinship to the place, as irrelevant as the breeze… Today, to travel was to seem to express freedom, leisure, an ability to choose locales and friends, landmarks, natural wonders and to don added physical presence in food, love and sex, an identity in mobility. Daly felt no more free, no less, no matter where he was. (122-23)

At a further extreme is Doc Pierce (aka Rest in Peace), an Oakland barfly, who says: “Being out of Pittsburgh for some of us is like being in purgatory. Don’t leave town again, it disorientates you” (149-150).

Even with his medical death sentence, Daly continues to look after the less fortunate and the wayward of Oakland. He takes a nightmarishly dysfunctional family to dinner in an act of respect to the deceased patriarch. He allows the dead man’s children to steal his shirts, socks and cufflinks. He lends money to the son in a dubious emergency. These seemingly masochistic acts are actually therapeutic for Daly: “At small price he had liberated the neat, constrained part of himself that yearned to see the helpless know small pleasures, what the rest of the world comes to by birth” (23) He visits his dying Uncle Finnerty, continues his courtship with Jessie (a blind woman), and supports his spinster sister Ruth Marie. He legally represents a drunken and delusional boy who claims to have murdered a man with an axe; it was actually a heart attack. When Robert Kennedy is assassinated, Daly and some friends travel to New York for the funeral. They ditch the long queue outside St Patrick’s Cathedral to go whoring. Unlike his friends, Daly does not sleep with his delegated prostitute but elects to talk with her about heaven and hell. He counsels people threatening suicide, gives money to unfortunates. He is a quiet saint of the streets. Late at night, when the streets are empty, he thinks he is “at his best at such a time when everything closed down, nothing to be said, no one to be rescued. He could not help, he could not, for quiet was in him and not injustice raging to be cured, hurt anyone” (239-40).

The streets of Oakland hold for Daly a kind of map to his self. For Daly, “Each walk down Robinson… held a thousand low Irish voices from his past, sitting on their porches, murmuring in his ears of lost worlds before their eyes, and now themselves fading shadows in the streets of the unremembered” (168). His obsessive remembrances are checked with aching awareness of the transitory nature of this urban landscape and its community:

Without asking, Silk drove with Daly to Robinson Street and turned up the hill past St Agnes. Again, Daly remembered the lost gray afternoons in the Pittsburgh of his boyhood, streetlights often lit at noon, even then failing to penetrate the haze of smoke and dust and fumes and sulphur on the air; streets too dark in Oakland to see a dog from three feet away, a person until he or she spoke into one’s ear, houses blending into each other as he trudged again up to Robinson from St. Agnes’s Church on the corner of Robinson and Fifth to the Morgan Street Cemetery, desolate and broken-backed with untended tombstones at the top of the hill. It was a land of illusions and certainty in belief. But it was us, on the streets and in all the houses, in all our foolish glory, the merging of us in the sunlight the same as fog, Daly thought, that was the beauty of it, and the mystery was why we came to separate. (167)

At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the urban landscape as of 1968. The University is described as some sort of omnivorous beast:

The University of Pittsburgh, whose marriage with its neighbors had always been shaky to disloyal, gobbled up hillsides, parts of Schenley Park, streets and parts of streets, and changed the patterns of traffic. The university bought hospitals and lots where there had been restaurants and shoemaker shops on Forbes and reached everywhere into parking meters and homes. They maintained their own police force to roam Oakland, as if one more was needed. Parking lots stood where once one knew the names of everyone in a certain house: uncles, cousins, and cats and dogs. Gone. Brushed aside by an idea going somewhere: The university would expand, tentacled and grasping at ground as if it needed the oxygen of places to keep a large land beast from suffocating by being confined. (5-6)

Daly’s drinking friend, Vanish, describes the university with the metaphors of war: “We’re under the guns, too, from the Pitt machine creeping down on us from the top of the hill. There’s tennis courts and medical buildings menacing us, and black people advancing on all sides: seige [sic.] in all but tanks and warfare” (107).

Daly, in a good mood after a drinking session with friends, walks by the Morgan St Cemetery behind Terrace Village II. “Behind him one of the buildings of the Pitt Medical School sat on a ridge above where he lay on the grass and ate the eggs and pretzels” (117). For Daly the city is a playground for memory and fantasy. He hallucinates and enacts a scene where he helps ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd escape from the police. He remembers when couples would make love in the cemetery, which is also due for destruction. He reflects that “the idea of the cemetery itself [would be] eradicated when the last person who thought of it no longer remembered the overgrown trees and graves and forgot the touch of white legs and lips and arms: When it was bulldozed and shoved out of the path of tennis courts and buildings of Pitt, dreams of love would be buried, too” (118-19).

Late in the novel there is a telling scene that illustrates the estrangement of the working Irish from academic Oakland. Daly and his friend Silk enter the famous Cathedral of Learning for the first time to buy coffee. Their only previous experience of the place had been as young men lurking outside, trying to pick up women students who were thought to be more sexually open than the local Irish girls. Daly speaks of “how this place used to represent money and sex and freedom to us… and never a damned thing about education.” Daly lightly mocks his long-standing understanding of the estrangement as “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” (258). Daly comes to realise that the students are just as scared of the working Oakland Irish as the Irish are of these seemingly privileged students.

There is finally in Goran’s late work a kind of reconciliation with the bulldozing nature of time. Goran spoke to me about “the infinite smallness of the mind, the ego” in relation to one’s environment, the ability of place to be “everything that’s a definition of [the self].” However, the inevitable “pile of rubble obviously is not something the Pittsburgh Authority or the University of Pittsburgh destroys, the pile of rubble is simply the way life is demonstrated to us. Galaxies and universes are being destroyed” (Goran 2008).

 Bing Crosby’s Last Song is the Irish Club milieu at its terminus, and may finally be seen as a coda to Goran’s extensive (and ongoing) project of “[perpetuating] a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time.” Goran’s Pittsburgh writings map the evolution of a twentieth century city through the subjective experience of his underclass and working class characters. The few miles from ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’ to the Irish Club represent to Goran the great leap of his life. He has remained loyal to these neighbourhoods.

 © 2009, 2014 Matthew Asprey Gear.

[1] Goran translated (in collaboration with Singer) a number of the stories collected in The Image and other stories (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985) and The Death of Methuselah (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alter, Robert. 2005. Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Novel. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Clemetson, Lynette. 2002. Revival for a Black Enclave in Pittsburgh. The New York Times, August 9. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/09/us/revival-for-a-black-enclave-in-pittsburgh.html (accessed February 22, 2010).

Dimendberg, Edward 2004, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glaab, Charles N & Brown, A. Theodore. 1967. A History of Urban America. New York: Macmillan.

Goran, Lester. 1960. The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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Goran, Lester. 1966. The Stranger in the Snow. New York: The New American Library.

Goran, Lester. 1996. Tales from the Irish Club. Kent: Kent State University Press.

Goran, Lester. 1997. She Loved Me Once and other stories. Kent: Kent State University Press.

Goran, Lester. 1998. Bing Crosby’s Last Song. New York: Picador USA.

Goran, Lester. 2008. Interview with author. Coral Gables, FL, September 23-24.

Goran, Lester. 2010. Email message to author. February 3.

Meanor, Patrick. 2001. American short-story writers since World War II (Fourth series). Ed. Patrick Meanor and Joseph McNicholas. Detroit: Gale Group.

Muller, Edward K. 2006 [2000], ‘Downtown Pittsburgh : Renaissance and Renewal’, in Patrick, Kevin J. & Scarpaci, Joseph L., Jnr. (eds.), A Geographic Perspective of Pittsburgh and the Alleghenies, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press: pp.7-20.

Poore, Charles. 1960. Books of The Times. The New York Times, July 23, p. 17

Teaford, Jon C. 1990, The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America 1940-1985, Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.

Toker, Franklin. 1986. Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Warner, Jr., Sam Bass. 1972. The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City. New York: Harper & Row.

Wise, William. 1960. Sobaski’s Stairway. The New York Times Book Review, July 24, p. 22.

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