A writer writes. But a great writer observes.
One lunch date decades ago, in 1985 when Miami was a markedly different place, novelist Lester Goran tooled around U.S. 1 with a reporter near the University of Miami, the school for which he established the first creative writing curriculum 20 years earlier, five years after joining UM.
Goran, then 57, popped into a hotel lounge along the highway — its name is unimportant, suffice to say its decor of dim, mock ship lights would not have qualified as a sexy location shoot for the stylish Miami Vice of the era.
“You look around here and you see a tawdry, second-rate nook lighted with cheap imitation brass lamps, a tacky modern American place,” Goran commented to his lunch mate from the Miami Herald. “That’s not what I see. I see a wonderful sense of restfulness, of hard-working people relaxing at lunch.”
Goran, an English professor at UM since 1960 and a novelist likened to Charles Dickens and Thomas Wolfe, a confidant of the late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a man The Washington Post ranked as one of the 10 best writers in America, knew how to observe. He also knew hard work, and his novels and short-story collections married the best of both traits.
“He’s extraordinary in terms of the things we mortals use to examine what makes a person great,” his son John Goran said Thursday afternoon, a few hours after Goran died at 85 at Baptist Hospital in Kendall.
“He was born in public housing in Pittsburgh in one of the roughest neighborhoods, Hill District,” John Goran said. Yiddish was Goran’s first language. He joined the Army at 16 when World War II ended and rose to corporal. The GI Bill helped Goran land an education at the University of Pittsburgh. But he knew he wanted to be a writer from as far back as 8.
That was his dream, his son said. Storyteller. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, he imagined as he surveyed his tough surroundings.
“As a storyteller growing up in government housing, people were laughing at him, as you can imagine. He sells aluminum storm windows in Pittsburgh.” John Goran chuckles briefly. “I never understood the need for storm windows in Pittsburgh.”
But it was work. Honest work. And it led to Goran’s first novel in 1960, the year he moved to Miami. The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, a story set in a fictional Pittsburgh slum, torn from his childhood, spans a period from the Depression through postwar America. Time magazine said it was one of the two “hot” books released that summer. The other was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Goran felt sorry for Lee for having to compete against his own novel “with a stuffy work about race relations in the South,” the Herald reported.
Goran would ultimately publish 14 novels, in every decade but one from the 1960s to 2010 in a writing career that topped 50 years. In 1996, The New York Times pronounced Tales From the Irish Club: A Collection of Short Stories (Kent State; $13) “some of the liveliest fiction in this country.”
It was only in the ’00s he’d missed publishing a book, his son said, but he kept busy at UM where he’d teach more than 20,000 students in his career. His students included successful writers like Chantel Acevedo, Michelle Richmond, Terrence Cheng and Tom Cavanagh.
“I’m like Casey Stengel of the Yankees. I might be an adequate manager, but I had some damn great players,” Goran said in a 2010 Miami Herald profile when UM paid tribute to him with the launch of a Goran Reading Series of master classes and workshops with some of these accomplished former students.
“We are all very proud of the creative writing program, which Lester started in 1965,” said Leonidas Bachas, dean of UM’s College of Arts & Sciences. “He has enlightened our community for almost 50 years, and his legacy will continue to live on in our students and their writings.”
Author M. Evelina Galang ( Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, Coffee House Press; $9) considers Goran a mentor and friend.
“Of the many things that impressed me was that once you were in his favor, and that is to say he really knew people and could see what they were all about, once you were in his favor, there was a way he’d carry you and support you and give you the straight scoop, no matter what the situation was,” she said. Galang is in her 13th year at UM where she is director of creative writing and an associate professor of English.
Goran’s counterpart at Florida International University, writer Les Standiford, founding director of FIU’s creative writing program, considers Goran a pioneer in the field of writing in South Florida.
“When I came to Miami in 1981, with the charge of designing a graduate program in creative writing at FIU, there was no Book Fair, no Books & Books, no South Florida ‘School’ of mystery writers, not much of a literary scene at all, save for Lester's work at UM, the occasional appearance by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and the writing of Charles Willeford and Douglas Fairbairn. I still think of Lester and those folks as the pillars upon which everything followed. We are indebted to him.”
Despite his acclaim, Goran never became rich from his craft. Unlike Lee, his books didn’t turn into a Hollywood blockbuster film. One got the impression that Goran, who is survived by his wife, Edythe, and their three sons, John, Robert and William, was fine with the way his life path ran.
“I come from a generation where you were supposed to fade into the shadows as a writer, you just kept a low profile, you were an observer,” Goran said in 2010.
“The best way to honor Lester is to seek out his books,” suggested friend and South Florida freelance writer and critic Chauncey Mabe. “He was a literary writer in the real sense of the term, never mistaking earnestness for seriousness, never underestimating the value of humor in exploring the mysteries of human character.”