Lester Goran is possibly the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of.
For a small but glittering cognoscenti centered on the University of Miami, this is the last day in the Year of Lester. No, that’s not some obscure sign in the Chinese zodiac, but a celebration of possibly America’s greatest unknown novelist and short-story writer: Lester Goran.
“Most underrated writer,” or “greatest writer you’ve never heard of,” or “best unknown American novelist” are over-the-top terms. I’ve tried to use them over the years only when truly merited. At the moment there may be any number of outstanding writers who deserve bigger audiences, but I can think of only two whose achievement towers so far above their recognition as to deserve such a title: Lester Goran and Curt Leviant.
I’ve written about Leviant elsewhere (here, here, and here), and besides, this is Lester’s day. I can’t help noting, however, that both are elderly Jewish writers with comic gifts harnessed in service to serious themes. For decades both have written as well as much more famous contemporaries, like Philip Roth. Otherwise, they have little in common in terms of style or subject matter, and, the authorial ego being what it is, I imagine they wouldn’t necessarily get along.
Lester Goran, who celebrates his 50th anniversary at U.M. this year, first came to my attention in 1996, when I read a long, rave review of his short-story collection, Tales From the Irish Club, in The New York Times. I admit I was skeptical. By then I’d been a book reviewer in South Florida for 10 years — how could there be a major writer hiding in Miami that I didn’t know about?
Still, the reviewer was the estimable Jay Parini, so I felt obliged to get a copy of the book and judge for myself. And thus I stumbled upon one of the great discoveries of my reading life. Tales From the Irish Club won me over from the opening page (here’s my review; keep reading past the jump, I had to be mean to Roseanne Cash first).
“All of these stories are excellent, locating lyrical beauty and larger truths in the small details of obscure lives. Goran’s narrative technique is a gossipy, seamless combination of the literary and the colloquial. He taps into the Irish penchant for talk, and renders it gorgeously, not only in the dialogue but also in the narrative, which reads as much as anything like an overheard conversation.”
That’s just the first of many chances I had to heap extravagant praise on Lester’s work, as he continued to mine his childhood (he grew up in a poor Irish neighborhood in Pittsburgh) for two more short story collections, She Love Me Once and Other Stories (1997) and Outlaws of the Purple Cow (1999).
“Goran is a serious writer in the full sense of the term,” I wrote of Outlaw, “never mistaking earnestness for seriousness, never underestimating the value of humor in the cause of elucidating the mysteries of human character. He never resorts to cliche, never underlines or highlights his punch lines or literary effects, steers clear of pre-digested images from cinema or TV, always grants the reader the ultimate compliment of intelligence.”
I would not take back or moderate a single thing I’ve ever said about the excellence of Goran’s work. In addition to being among the elite short story writers of his generation, he’s also a superb novelist. His first novel, The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, was named co-book of the year by Kirkus Reviews for 196o (its partner in the honor: To Kill a Mockingbird).
His seven other novels all received rave reviews, as did The Bright Streets of Surfside (1994), the memoir of his friendship with the Nobel Prize-wining Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. At UM, he help found and develop the creative writing program, teaching thousands of students, including notables such as novelist Chantel Acevedo, poet Paul Perry, and novelist Terrence Cheng.
Over 80 now, Goran still writes every day, even though he hasn’t gotten a book published since Outlaw in 1999. Two weeks ago, when I spoke to Lester for a profile for the Sun-Sentinel, he said, “It’s better now than it was 10 years ago. I have a room, I work, I have my grand kids. I can’t explain it, but I’ve been like this since i was a kid. I was always happy to face the day. I’ve never had a day where I felt like I was going to die.”
Today comes the last celebration in the Year of Lester, a panel discussion featuring three of his former students — Young Adult novelist Crissa Jean Chappel, novelist and TV producer Tom Cavenaugh, and marketing executive Hayes Roth. Starting at 3:30 p.m., it’s open to the public. For more info go here (and scroll all the way down).
I feel remiss. I should have written about this event earlier in the week, so any intrigued readers would have time to plan to attend. But the pressures of work in the 21st century, you know…
In any event, the best way to honor Lester Goran is by reading his books. If you prefer short stories, start with Tales From the Irish Club. For novels, pick up The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue first. If you don’t agree Goran deserves a spot of honor among late 20th century American writes, I’d like to know why.