A novel by the author of The New York Times Notable Book, Tales from the Irish Club
It is June 1968: Robert Kennedy has just been murdered, the streets are simmering with discontent, and the Irish community of Oakland Park in Pittsburgh is being swept away by change. Daly Racklin becomes the reluctant leader of a dying neighborhood, culture, and people. He is at once a man torn by his father's omnipotent shadow and the struggles of his own heart, and as his elevated position brings him from one home to another he increasingly discovers the importance of what he sees disappearing. Bing Crosby's Last Song is a hilarious, touching, heartwrenching story of survival and love, a community's demise and a wanderer's rebirth. Full of barroom lore, hard-bitten wisdom, wry humor, and faith tempered by skepticism, this novel will delight readers of William Kennedy and Frank McCourt.
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About the Author
Lester Goran is the author of seven books of fiction, two story collections, and a memoir detailing his friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer. He grew up in Pittsburgh and is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami.
Read an Excerpt
Bing Crosby's Last Song
By Lester Goran
PicadorCopyright © 1998 Lester Goran
All rights reserved.
On a fine spring day in 1968, Daly Racklin, six months short of fifty, was told by a doctor at the Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh that he had less than a year to live. He had come to be reassured that the occasional ringing in his ears, the tightness in his chest, and the shortness of breath was an occasion of vodka and tonic and a lack of exercise. Instead, he was solemnly informed that the arteries leading to his heart were shot and his heart itself beat irregularly. As it happened, the doctor explained, in a few years' time, given the research of a certain physician in South Africa, the probability was there might be something done to save him, but for now it was put your feet up and wait for the second stage of eternity.
Daly shook hands with the physician, his grip firm, but his heart, true to itself, signaling to the world his blind panic in his dangerously racing pulse.
Described frequently as a lawyer of eloquent speech and subtle thought, Daly remarked to himself for the record, alone on the elevator down: "Casey Jones, mounted to the cabin, took the farewell journey to the promised land."
He called from the telephone in the hospital lobby first Jessie O'Brien, the one person who might tell him best how to pull himself together around the news, neither awkwardly joking nor crushing him with the seriousness of his situation. Her gift for saying things truthfully and well was what kept him attached to her, no matter his doubts on where they were going as man and woman.
Her phone rang ten times, and there was no answer.
He sought a second opinion on the all-too-soon prospects for his last rites, and that took him to Coyne's Bar and Grill, on Oakland Avenue, where his physician of faith and incidental healing, Richard I. Pierce, M.D., known widely as R.I.P., usually sat in a back booth from three in the afternoon until eleven at night.
Doc Rest in Peace did not officially practice medicine. He had not for more than twenty years. But he showed up responsibly at any of the neighborhood's hospitals at the first announcement of an old friend's illness, to provide comfort in words of one syllable, or two at most. If all went well in his diagnosis, he said, "Have a drink, you'll be fine." In situations more precarious, he said, "Have a drink, on me, Senator, do you no harm at this point." He dispensed advice on medicine and interpretations of the verities from the oval bar at Lasek's, and the dark corners of Coyne's, Edward's, the University Grill, or Frankie Gustine's, wherever the day's winds took him.
On thinking it over, Daly had been surprised he had lived as long as he had. If the X rays had been read correctly, from the moment the doctor at the Montefiore Hospital had shrugged, turned his eyes to the ceiling for prophecy, and asked, "Do you have a history of heart disease in your family?" he knew he would be buried for eternity before the gentle rains of the next springtime.
"No, no heart disease in our family that I know."
"How old was your father when he died?"
"My father died in his early forties."
"Well, you've done better than your father already."
"Lived longer, not done better," Daly said.
Doc Pierce was not at Coyne's, where Daly found Vanish Hagen and asked him to please ask Doc to call. At the Atwood Cafe, Daly left word with the bartender that should Doc arrive, tell him to call the Right Racklin. And at Edward's Bar and Grill, he left the same message with Paul Flynn, who occupied a bar stool eight hours a day there, no less. At Lasek's, Daly wrote Doc a note asking him to call when he could and wishing him good health and a long life.
The long walks between bars tired Daly. "Casey Jones," he sang softly to himself, "orders in his hand, took the farewell journey to the promised land." He was not counting, but he had more than four vodkas. And they worked as well as a kind word from Doc Pierce. His problems seemed less pressing. He hoped Doc, who had been under a death watch for decades, would not die that day.
Double Tragedy on Forbes: Two Oakland Men Die Drunk in Separate Barrooms
Friends for Forty Years Expire Five Minutes Apart
The world along Forbes did need Doc desperately and the granite solidity of things in place, Daly thought, promise that there was something brighter than the gathering gloom of the streets in 1968. Today, it was rioting in Pittsburgh, buildings set afire at rage over the assassination of Martin Luther King last month, and snipers shooting the firemen who came to put out the blazes. People shaking their fists into television cameras and other people in the streets with weapons and flames in Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, firing on policemen and one another.
There were now costumes on the sidewalks in Oakland that made every block a branch of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Drug addicts stumbled into telephone poles on the streets. 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. Revelations of change everywhere.
Before Daly went home to look for sleep against the unwelcome news that had crept into things, he strolled the few blocks to Robinson Street, where he had been born. There the world had once promised order and, if not kindness, cruelty elsewhere. At the top of the hill he could see the street below in afternoon shadows. It lay as undisturbed as it had been when he was a boy.
If ever a street slept, this one did, for years, decades. He had wandered among his people on their porches and the narrow walkways between their houses like the wind down Robinson. He had loved their suspenders and shawls, and their hand-me-down visions, their unchanging ways. Nights held a glow from their pipes in the dark. He wished on an anxious afternoon like this one that he could be down there as he once had been, healthy and dumb and happy and complete.
As he walked back down the hill to his house off Forbes, on Coltart, he hoped, as he strolled slowly past St. Agnes, the church where he had been baptized and would soon be eulogized, on the corner of Robinson and Fifth, that his heart would go now. He stopped, catching his breath. Now, he thought, here.
Lately Daly had been visiting in the hospital his last reminder of his late father, the first Right Racklin, an uncle named Finnerty. The old man lay in tubes and hoses and cold, mechanical sounds, swathed in the unnatural quiet of the intensive care unit and dying in inches of mute humiliation: no way to go.
At the corner, turning onto Fifth, he stopped, thinking he had heard his name in a pronouncement, not called out, but simply stated. He looked up Fifth and down — no one there to say his name. He waited. There was no sound except traffic.
Daly went home and worked on his will, nothing much to attend to there. He made a note to look into the matter of the portion of his father's inheritance to come to him on his fiftieth birthday. That was in November. Would he be around to collect it personally?
When his mother died, she left nothing except the family lamps dating from biblical times, old mirrors stained enough to have been conceived to conceal rather than reveal a person's face, and carpets ruined and discolored with the years. At the time, Daly was in the process of breaking up his own housekeeping. He had little to divide in his divorce; his wife left Pittsburgh with a suitcase and, under the circumstances, the best wishes possible for him. Daly gave away everything that once was in the home of the first Right Racklin and his wife and three children, a brother, Al, and his sister, Ruth Marie.
By the terms of his queer will, Boyce Racklin, his father, left everything to his wife and son Daly. Daly was to receive the money partially when he was thirty, the rest when he was fifty.
With his mother dead, Daly received on his thirtieth birthday what there was of the inheritance to that point: the less than grand sum of four hundred and seventeen dollars. He assumed it was not entirely a serious sum from his father, who as often as not saw himself and his comings and goings as lessons for other people. There was no message with the sum. It was handled by an attorney in the Grant Building downtown, but the trustee of the will was a once well-known politician and philanthopist to Catholic charities, an old friend of Boyce Racklin's, but probably now, having had a stroke, not fully capable of handling his own affairs. Daly had not thought of the inheritance for more than a half hour a year in the two decades since his thirtieth birthday.
His uncle Finnerty treated the will as a joke. Serious enough on Boyce's part, but it was a laughing matter to sensible people.
"It's his last statement to the world," he said when he heard the sum left Daly. "He's going to strengthen you morally, Daly, by showing you there's nothing but hard work going to make you rich. Don't expect something for nothing."
"And when I'm fifty?"
"You'll get a torn pair of pants he used to wear when he was pretending to be doing work around the house. The man never lifted a finger under his own roof, for any of you."
"Uncle Finnerty, you're no man to talk."
"I'm not the subject under discussion, only the lessons taught by my revered brother."
But confusing the two of them was easy, the one abstemious and never touching anything stronger than iced tea and the other, Finnerty, delighted to never have the sensation of his feet touching solid ground. By whatever door a Racklin entered the world's stage, he or she left it in a dance part Charleston, a lot of waltz, jitterbugging to beat the band, and inventing queer somersaults and flips to add to the fantastic element in their characters.
It was on the program till the end. Two days before Boyce Racklin's death on the river, Uncle Finnerty brought to the Racklin home a big chandelier he wanted to install in the apartment where the family lived for a year after moving from Robinson Street. The building had a supervisor, too nosy for the taste of both Racklin brothers. Uncle Finnerty assaulted the housing manager when he demanded that the chandelier be taken down. And his father, the rationalist Boyce Racklin, almost lost his license to practice law, defending Finnerty when the police came.
And it was all junk glass, held together by frayed wires and string. Finnerty had found it in the alley behind Frank and Seder, an old broken window display and useless except to provoke apartment managers, as it hung perilously by a thread in their living room. The police threatened Finnerty. Finnerty shoved a policeman. Boyce went to his aid.
Daly's mother stood between all of them, calming the storm.
The chandelier was removed and then immediately replaced when the police left, only to come crashing down that night, never to be installed again.
"It was a lovely gesture, but we were almost evicted," Daly's mother said whenever the chandelier was discussed.
Daly was amused at the idea he would not be alive anyhow to collect a nonexistent legacy strengthening his character. A lesson there, too: Be sure, Father, the audience for your sermon is not dead. He fell asleep.
When the telephone rang, there was daylight, pale with no sun yet, under his window blinds. "Yes," he said, burdened. "Daly Racklin here."
"Racklin," a young man's voice said, not at all encouraging in its hoarse alarm. "Thank God, you're there. I'm in trouble, Mr. Racklin, it's serious, it's deep. I'm minutes from going under."
Daly thought for a few seconds, then said, "May I ask: Who the hell is this?" "Tom."
"Tom who? Try to get ahold of yourself, Tom."
"Tom Guignan, Tommy Guignan's son."
"Tommy Guignan's son? Yes, Tommy Guignan's son."
Daly's mind turned to a boy not altogether the quickest youth he had known — slow was the charitable word, stupid even, within the range of kindness.
"I think I may have just killed a man."
"You're not sure of that, Tom? There's a dead man somewhere and you think you have some connection to him, sort of — that you may have recently killed him. Where does the doubt in your mind come in? Is there a body, something solid — maybe not living — but a body to establish there's been a murder or a death by misadventure?"
"Sure, there's a body. I can see it from here at the telephone. I'm not seeing things!"
"Now, Tom, I know this is a bad time for you, but I must ask you not to get angry with me, or I'll hang up and you'll go to the electric chair if the murder was premeditated and the police decide you did it."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Racklin, but I'm standing here with an ax in my hand and there's a man on the floor, maybe been chopped up, and I'm wondering did I do it."
"Why the doubt?"
"I'm real drunk, Mr. Racklin. And I'm not a murderer is why I think I didn't do it."
"Tom, why did you call me instead of the police? I have to call the police now, you know."
"My father before he died, he said, 'Real trouble, boys'— he was talking to my brother and me —'you call Right Racklin, you understand?' This looks like real trouble to me."
"Yes, it does to me, too. Give me the address where you are, and I'll try to get there the same time as the police. I'll call them as soon as I hang up. Say as little as possible, admit nothing."
"That you killed a man with the ax you're carrying."
"The more I think about it, the more I think it wasn't me. I wouldn't do nothing like this, Mr. Racklin, and, furthermore, there's no damned blood on the ax. How'd I chop up somebody without there being blood on the ax? And ... Mr. Racklin, there's someone banging at the door."
"Tom, put down the ax, put it where you won't be tempted not to kill another person, and go sit by yourself."
"Mr. Racklin, whoever it is is going to break down the door."
After considerable thought, the young man gave Daly the address, and Daly dialed the Number Four Police Station on Forbes. The crime scene was ten minutes away from the station, twenty at most from Daly. "May I speak to Captain Carr?" he asked pleasantly, in his manner the matter of arranging for lunch.
"Jimmy! Right Racklin here."
"Racklin, I'm leaving for the morning. On my way to Mass. I came on at midnight. If this is about the Pirates, call me later — anything else don't talk to me about it, not now. Second thought, not ever. We're not a charitable organization, if you follow me?"
"I follow you, Jimmy. But this is Tommy Guignan's son, young Tom. Do you know the boy?"
"Habitual. I know him as a habitual. Him and his twin brother, Louis."
"Young Tom is the simple son, the other, Louis, is the smart one. Carnegie Tech. Engineering. The way it goes."
"Jimmy, one question? Are these identical twins?"
"Can't tell one from the other. Except the habitual is always drunk, almost always — I saw him what could have been sober one night about two years ago — and the other is always walking with a book."
"Jimmy, the one, Tom, may have killed somebody."
"You ain't sure."
Right Racklin gave him the address. "He's there now," Daly said.
"So are we. We had a call about twenty minutes ago. Someone was screaming like murder was being done. We're on the scene."
"Good. That's why I called. I'm going over there now."
"Right, how'd you know about this?"
"The boy called me from the scene."
"You and not the police? Not Father Farrell? Not J. Edgar Hoover or Bishop Wright?"
"Well, his father told him to call me if he was ever in serious trouble."
"It's not a confusion between you and the bishop?"
"No, it's me been delegated."
"That's one good dutiful boy. What did his father tell him about murdering another person do you suppose? We'll handle it, Right, there's no need for you to come to the scene. You're a good man, Daly. A little push here, a tug there."
Excerpted from Bing Crosby's Last Song by Lester Goran. Copyright © 1998 Lester Goran. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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