Sparkle Street Press
Ordinary Times, 24 October 2021 – Sunday Morning! Jacket Weather
There used to be an older lady at the bar where I used to drink who always gave me the best advice.
The bar is no more, and I no longer drink, but I assume she’s still around somewhere. And by “older,” I mean she was maybe ten years older than me, you understand, although I’ve reached that age where I am “older” than a good many of the people I know, though I can’t vouch for fhe quality of my advice. At any rate, this lady worked in retail and she would stop by for a single drink after work each day; she had her own spot, where you dare not sit if she arrived, and she was sufficiently well-loved that the bartendresses took her with them on their summer vacations to Cuba.
I remember asking her, on one of those nights in which it felt as if I was out to sea in a bad storm: “Can you tell me why love gets harder as you get older. Everything else gets easier the older you get, but not love- that gets harder. Why is that?”
She paused for a second to think, and replied simply: “Because it means more.”
Which, of course, is exactly it. When I was a young man, I was looking for a playmate; and now, it feels I’m looking for sanctuary. Or, at least, someone to talk to and never have enough time to finish talking. This week, I read Mike DeCapite’s novel Jacket Weather, just released by Soft Skull Press, and it captured, like nothing else I’ve read, how it is to talk and talk with someone you love at a certain age in your life in New York City, the city that never stops talking.
Mike and June are two acquaintances from the downtown music scene, refugees from the 80s, who have never quite had the chance to be together in the few decades they’ve known and had crushes on one another. They’ve been through a few marriages each and they reconnect right when she’s going through a divorce and he’s working on a manifesto about the pleasures of being alone; neither of them are quite ready for this. But, love and death don’t give a damn about your scheduling and they soon find themselves wrapped up in something they can’t quite define, and which she doesn’t want to pin down as much as he seems to, and so they talk and talk.
In fact, the music of this novel is in its vocals. Mike and June talk with friends and each other and he listens to the old guys at the YMCA talk about old gangsters, jazz singers, and how to prepare pasta perfectly, and where to come by it: all the important topics. DeCapite is a skilled mimic and chronicler of the sheer poetry of human conversation and you can hear the dialogue, much of which made me laugh out loud. Take this scene with old NY friends June and Jane:
I know these people just by listening to them talk- it’s really how we know everyone we know. DeCapite loves these people and he lets them speak for themselves. There’s artistry there, but its still very close to listening in on real life. I was frankly a little sad we all couldn’t still hang out after the book was over.
There’s also a specificity to the characters that comes from their shared references. It occurred to me how much entering into a music scene at a certain time and place is like being classmates together- you share the little jokes and references and the great shows that compose the fabric of your life. It meant something that the characters were going to see Walter Lure, or hanging out with Judy Nylon, both of whom were the real deal, brilliant downtown songwiters who have been maybe a little forgotten and overshadowed by the flakes and poseurs. Life is like that- nothing ever quite happens the way it should have, but there’s a real dignity in simply sticking to your routine and persisting.
You could say this is what Mike DeCapite has been doing for some time now. His talents have been long recognized among a handful of loyal readers of his novel Through the Windshield, which he began in 1985 and finished 13 years later, and his self-published chapbooks Creamsicle Blue and Radiant Fog. Luc Sante has praised him. Richard Hell gave him his first reading. (We linked to one of his pieces for Christmas, 2017) But he’s always been a bit of a “lesser-known” great American writer. In fact, I remember a mutual friend once, in a conversation about the small-mindedness of contemporary publishing gripe: What can you say a publishing industry that hasn’t published a writer like Mike DeCapite? Well, they have now and this book makes the case they should have long ago. The point is he’s still doing it; he’s still the real deal.
And, frankly, its a refreshing change from MFA prose. DeCapite’s style is lyrical and its spare poetic prose is saturated with meaning. He writes: “Wherever you a re in New York, you’re at the heart of it. New York is holographic: every part contains the whole.” And every sentence seems to cotain the whole novel, even when the sections are as long as: The sky is grey and God is on the breeze.
The impressionistic style evokes the way that everything feels sharper and more intense when we’re in love. Each image and sensation feels like a revelation, just like it does when you’ve just fallen in love with someone.
Some readers might find it doesn’t “move like a novel,” it’s not plotty. It passes gently before you know it’s passed, and of course that’s exactly what always happens with dear friends.* To my mind, this is more satisfying; it feels more like life. What else is a novel but the impressions of the world filtered through a single consciousness and pressed onto paper? Towards the end of the novel, it’s subtly mentioned that Mike and June have been together for ten years, which brought a smile to my face. Where does all the time go?
And where do we go? His characters are the folks that stuck with the music scene after the best shows, and with New York after it passed a certain prime, and most importantly, they stuck with each other. One of the gentle ironies of the book is that Mike and June have reached the age where they’re not so cool anymore at the same time as New York had just started its decline to become what Gary Indiana has called “the world’s largest money laundry.” Mike tells June “Step by step, you go from the inside to the outside… Life is a process of being gently shown the door.” I’ve described reaching a certain age as being at a party where others are subtly hinting it’s time for you to go. But, then what? Neither of them quite know what’s next.
So, the book’s tone is whistful and a little elegiac, a little yearnful. We want these people to get it right, this time, not because they’ve reached “retirement age,” but because we know they’ve found true love and it’s terrible to squander a miracle.
Most of all, because it means more.
*Endnote: Before I ask the big question, I would be remiss not to mention a dear friend of our little ex-record store, Adam Wood (or Atom Would) who unexpectedly passed away in his sleep two days ago. As is always the case with these things, Adam was someone who was universally loved. He was amiable and funny and passionate about his music, and totally devoted to the scene that supported him. I saw him nearly every time I worked in the store and it was always a pleasure. And, well, I don’t even think he reached 40. It really makes no goddamn sense. Rest in Power, Adam.
And so, what are YOU, reading, writing, watching, pondering, playing, or reminiscing about this weekend?
Karen the Small Press Librarian, 29 June 2012 – Interview with Mike DeCapite
Mike DeCapite‘s writing fascinates me for being both impossible to stop reading and impossible to pinpoint. His latest chapbook, Creamsicle Blue, (which I reviewed in January), is a 27 page piece of nonfiction with the scope of a novel and the depth of a meditation. He’s also the author of the novel, Through the Windshield (Sparkle Street Books), the unpublished novel Ruined for Life!, and the chapbook Sitting Pretty (CUZ Editions). Recently I asked him some questions about writing.
K: I was particularly struck in Creamsicle Blue with how closely entwined I found the writing and the living. Not merely that it was “autobiographical” but that you were walking through your life hand in hand with writing: The consciousness born in writing mattered to your life and your life lived mattered to the writing. Are you a “daily writer,” or do you think the practice of writing is more than just what happens between pen and paper?
M: I don’t write every day, not anymore, but I’ve developed a form that’s open to chance, that allows me to write things down as they happen. If I’m working on something, I’m working on it all the time, although days and even weeks might go by without my writing anything down. Since quitting smoking a few years ago, I have an aversion to sitting down at a table with a typewriter or computer. It’s the last thing I want to do. I’ve dismantled all my rituals around writing, and now I just write on the fly, wherever I am. So now more than ever, writing is more for me than just what happens between pen and paper. I feel like I’m living inside what I’m working on, gathering observations and bits of conversation, climbing up a ladder to add a detail here or there. Since my work is no longer localized at a green Formica kitchen table in Brooklyn, it’s generalized. Wherever I go, I’m in it. It’s a daydream. And as I get older, I’m less and less inclined to betray the dream by putting it into words. It’s so pleasant to go around in the dream. I’m trying very hard to avoid saying I’m lazy.
K: When did writing enter your life and what made you start? Did you explore other art media along the way, or was it always writing?
M: I’ve never explored another medium since I started writing in earnest, in my late teens. The first book I wrote was a book of journals when I was 18. I wrote it as a book, typing it as I went and showing it to my friends, with an idea that it would somehow be published when it was done. It covered a year, October 1980 through October ’81.
K: You’ve said that “Creamsicle Blue is as close as I’ve gotten to the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do.” How would you describe that thing? How did it show up in your earlier chapbooks or books?
M: I don’t have any interest in telling stories. Which, let’s face it, is a handicap in a writer. Even Through the Windshield, which is full of stories, isn’t interested in telling a story. It imagines the novel as flat surface, like a painting or mosaic. That book has a dailiness, a diaristic quality, a feeling of the sufficiency of now. It stops time. It’s a place to go, that book. Because it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no plot, so there’s more room for food and weather and the way the city looks at night and stray, momentary feelings and bits of reverie. Anyway, without especially trying to, it gets past linear time.
My second (never-published) novel, Ruined for Life!, attempts the same thing in a more deliberate way and with less success. It does compile a lot of different textures: narrative, journal entries, conversations, essays, prose poems, notes. But it’s not as disjointed as I envisioned it, and it turned out to be fairly linear after all.
Creamsicle Blue, I hope, manages to be nonlinear while still describing an arc. The form of it I developed in a column I was writing for a couple of years for a magazine in Cleveland called angle. I was living in a little room in San Francisco, drinking a lot, between drafts of Ruined for Life!, which I hadn’t even been able to look at for a couple of years. I didn’t think I could write anymore, I’d drunk the ceiling down on my imagination. And I knew a woman in Cleveland, a poet named Amy Sparks, who was starting an arts magazine with two other people, and I heard myself ask her if I could write a column. I told her I’d write a monthly weather column. Figuring everything’s weather, so I could write whatever I wanted. And she said okay. I only did it to get myself back in shape to write another draft of Ruined for Life!, but that column became the only writing I’d been happy with in a long time. It was called Radiant Fog. I wrote maybe fifteen or twenty of them, just going around with my eyes open, leaning on street corners and sitting in bus stops, collecting details and piecing them together till they took on some life or pull of their own. And after I quit writing for the magazine I continued to write in that form.
K: As a reader or a writer, how would you describe the sometimes-fine line between autobiographical fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, and fiction based closely on life observations? Why do you think poetry is rarely tagged as autobiographical?
M: I don’t know what they mean by creative nonfiction. All writing is creative. I think it’s an attempt to put a literary shine on a piece of nonfiction. Or it means a book is entertaining even though it’s nonfiction. It’s reassuring. And I guess in creative nonfiction you’re not writing about yourself, and in autobiographical fiction and memoir you’re writing about yourself. Autobiographical fiction is a label someone else sticks on you. No one says, “I write autobiographical fiction,” right? Who wants to say that?
I just call myself a writer. All writing is imaginative work. You can use your imagination to invent a world or to illuminate the world around you. I do the latter because that’s what I’m better at—it’s my natural inclination. It’s just a matter of what your interest is, as a writer, as a reader.
I guess poetry isn’t tagged as autobiographical because that’s its default position. Which isn’t true of prose.
K: Which writers or books stood out for you or influenced you along your path? What did you see they were doing that excited you?
M: Celine, for the directness and intimacy and force of his voice, and also for the speed and jumpiness of his style. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with its variety of textures and Agee’s statement near the beginning that if it were up to him, the book would be just pieces of wood and iron, and bits of cloth and food and excrement. Sometimes it’s not even a book but just a line. Exterminator! [William Burroughs], for instance—just the words a novel on the front—I can still see them, next to the big roach: that classification in itself was inspiring! You open it up and it’s all these unrelated short pieces, but on the front it says “a novel.” So that forces you to do some reassessment. It’s a novel because he had the nerve to say so. A book like Naked Lunch shows you that you can put whatever you want between two covers and call it a novel. Which is true back to the beginning of the form—look at Tristram Shandy. Nothing’s more freewheeling than that. But my influence from books was secondary to my influence from music. I probably got more from Freak Out! or Lumpy Gravy than I did from The Wild Boys. With music you get it right away, what’s cool about cutups and collages, why this works.
Also from music I got the idea of standing up there and singing your song, if you know what I mean. Rather than fooling around with fiction. For which I’m unsuited anyway.
If I had to pick one signpost work, it would be “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Where Are You Tonight?” My whole life, those songs. And what Dylan does later, on Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft—that method of conveying information—that method of composition, taking lines from here and there—is exactly what I’d like to be able to do in prose. That method of narration. Nonlinear, cinematic. This quality is always called cinematic, but songs do this kind of thing very naturally and no one seems to notice. The way old blues songs are put together, with verses chosen here and there from a common pool to supply a rhyme, is much more radical and nonlinear than works that set out deliberately to play with narrative. The guy’s in Georgia, he’s in Tennessee, he’s lost his woman, he’s got a woman, she’s an angel, she treats him like a dog, and when he gets in a jam for a rhyme he goes down in the ocean and sees the crabs doing the shimmee shee. And this method does a better job of describing or hinting at the dimensions of experience—the dimensions of a mind, a life—than loading the work with every memory and sensory detail, which would be a common inclination in prose. Songs like “Trying to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet”? Doesn’t get any better than that. All those images, all those scenes. Those songs, rather than summing up a life, suggest its dimensions—while retaining its richness and leaving its mystery undisturbed. Dylan doesn’t even confine himself to his own era. “I was riding in a buggy with Miss Mary Jane.” How’s he get away with that? I don’t care how much he steals—that’s part of the point of what he does, it’s part of the meaning of those songs, and it’s part of their effectiveness. Well, that’s enough about Dylan. Van Morrison’s song “St. Dominic’s Preview” was a big inspiration for Creamsicle Blue. The way he goes seamlessly from washing windows while listening to Edith Piaf to Paris in the first verse, the way he jumps around in time. Great, great song.
I’m more excited by works that are put together than by works that are written. But I’m not sure that influence is anything more than confirmation. It’s a reminder of what you already know. Maybe encouragement is more a more accurate term than influence. Certain works encourage you to trust your instincts. And you’re influenced by your own work. You write something that leaps forward, ahead of where you are, and then you write to catch up with it.
Find Mike DeCapite’s books here:
You can find excerpts from DeCapite’s novel Ruined for Life! at spots around the web, including these chapters on the blog Boogie Woogie Flu and the litmag Sensitive Skin.
Karen the Small Press Librarian, 15 January 2012 – Chapbook Review: Creamsicle Blue
Mike DeCapite, Creamsicle Blue. Brooklyn: Sparkle Street Books, 2011. Prose. 27 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9666592-5-2.
Creamsicle Blue is a spectacular piece of writing. Creamsicle Blue is the name of a new chapbook by Mike DeCapite. It contains 27 pages of prose; it takes place in New York and Cleveland and San Francisco and the road in between them; I am hard-pressed to classify it.
I received Creamsicle Blue in the mail on Friday. Soon after I hung up my coat at the end of my work week, I opened the chapbook, printed handsomely with a letterpress cover. I just wanted to glance at the first paragraph or two to get an upshot of the subject matter. But I was drawn in immediately, and didn’t put it down until I finished. DeCapite writes about the end of a troubled relationship, and about the end of his father’s life; but more than either, he attempts to write the abyss left (or revealed) by those endings. These losses leave him awake in the middle of the night, literally and figuratively, facing what he is and isn’t willing to face, what he is and isn’t willing to write.
The same night I finished Creamsicle Blue, I dreamt that some non-existent jacket copy said the book was like a “soulfriend” and that the author had traveled often enough to describe places he saw in a fresh and unjaded way. “Soulfriend”—that certainly describes a particular type of book for me. Not a diverting read, not “an entertainment,” but a walk down the path with a writer who is honest (and probing) enough that even a personal, specific story strikes at some deeply-felt, shared realizations and unsentimentalized truths.
I especially like watching as DeCapite does the work of getting past his own resistance to his story; he stays with the story long enough to write around his own blocks. Whether he knows it or not, he writes for me, the reader, naming things I’ve felt but rarely articulated, because they’re unpopular or unacceptable thoughts or tendencies, and I’ve resisted my own writing in their direction. DeCapite understands this unpopularity; he writes through a similar discomfort. And his writer’s labor yields rewards. I felt while reading Creamsicle Blue that I was experiencing the gradual recognitions and awarenesses that come from the folding-together of thinking, feeling, writing, and living. That is, sometimes life and writing can seem like two parallel realms—but writing about one’s life with a clean enough motivation (considering life as lived and felt) can change both the life and the writing and become a third realm. The author describes walking through the Met and being struck by a tiny Rembrandt drawing of the artist’s mother, and remembering why we bother to try to capture something in art: “…it was done with such directness and precision and honesty, and with such obvious love, for his mother and for the truth of that moment and for the details of the world, that it changed my mood. It elevated me. It was a moment that hadn’t escaped—this look that passed across this woman’s face nearly 400 years ago—one moment that hadn’t gone down the black drain of time. Score one for the artists, against death!” So, too, does DeCapite record with precision some small but vital moments of his life and consciousness, saving them from indifference, nonexistence, or the wash of time.
I’m reminded by Creamsicle Blue of what one art school professor used to say to us, that society pressures us to “hold ourselves together” but the work of an artist is the opposite—to break things apart (even ourselves) and expose their mechanisms. After reading DeCapite’s chapbook I didn’t feel like I’d watched some characters or scenes the writer painted for my mind’s eye, as much as I felt naked. I felt like he’d exposed or unraveled some pieces of me I wasn’t entirely comfortable revealing. Not only unraveled parts of me, but showed me how I was trying to hold those parts together, against their will. Though uncomfortable, I also relaxed a little after reading Creamsicle Blue, as if to say, There’s no need to strain in that direction anymore.
This chapbook may be the essence of the small press, to my mind. Twenty-seven pages of the author’s head, a few months or several years of the author’s life, nothing the publisher’s marketing department can brand. It’s like a delicate, subtle poem by an unknown poet, but without the literary niceties that charm readers into reading even difficult poems. It’s not quite an essay, though I think it does some of the mental work that essays do. It doesn’t have quite the shape of a story, though it may have the scope of a novel; and I don’t think it’s what people call Creative Nonfiction, though that genre might choose to claim it. If I decided to call it anything, I might call it a writer’s meditation. Following the uncharted, DeCapite forges a path found only by writing in the quietest moments, by paying attention to the silences in between words and events, and by walking around his city, struggling with the unsayable.
Creamsicle Blue is available in Brooklyn at Spoonbill & Sugartown and Book Thug Nation, in Toronto at Volume, and in Cleveland at Mac’s Backs and Visible Voice Books. On the web you can buy the book (and read more about the author) at Sparkle Street Books:
Cleveland Magazine, March 2010 – Reviving a Legacy
In the early 1960s, Cleveland writer Raymond DeCapite made a name for himself with two books about dreamers. In one, Fabrizze is an immigrant who works hard; speaks in big, broad language; charms his buddies into betting on the stock market; gets run out of town when he loses it all; but lives to weave cotton candy out of thin air another day. In the other, Paul Christopher is a young man who looks out for his old dad but, showing little ambition beyond selling watermelons and playing the harmonica, gets kicked out of the house and is then adrift.
The Coming of Fabrizze and A Lost King received glowing reviews from The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Saturday Review. DeCapite won the second Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature in 1962. And then, as is the case with more than a few wonderful books that have failed to build instant buzz, … nothing. The titles have been out of print for 50 years.
Although Fabrizze ranks among the handful of classic novels set in Cleveland, it’s nearly unobtainable in the city except for several copies buried in the downtown Cleveland Public Library. The novels aren’t physically available enough to be a cult phenomenon. Their muscular yet lyrical prose — wry humor, rawness and energy distilled into short bursts — are more of a fanciful legend, a memory of something great that a friend heard of but hasn’t gotten hold of yet.
Raymond DeCapite died in July 2009, at age 84, having published five novels and three plays. His oeuvre reads like a long poem to the working-class West Side, the spare descriptions conjuring up the blue chug of steel mills and the 2 a.m. sizzle of fried eggs amid the cold blade of life lived by punching a clock.
His son, writer Mike DeCapite of Brooklyn, N.Y., has long been on a mission to get his father’s books reissued. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve put those books in front of people,” he says. “I sent them to agents and editors. I’ve tried to get them in front of movie directors.” He even got author Don Delillo, a National Book Award novelist who had Fabrizze on his bookshelf, to send a copy to The New York Review of Books with the hope it would reissue DeCapite’s work in its Classics Series for overlooked fiction. All he heard back was silence.
Then, before Raymond’s death, Mike received word that Kent State University Press would be reissuing Fabrizze and A Lost King. “I was really happy to be able to tell him that was going to happen,” Mike says. “It just always seemed really a shame that those books were out of print. They’ve never gotten their due. I think they’ve been ghettoized as Italian-American regional fiction.”
During one of their last visits together, Mike read his dad the new foreword to Fabrizze, which should be in bookstores with A Lost King this month. Mike is also in the process of organizing a series of readings in Cleveland — and if all goes as planned, New York — to promote the books. “It counterbalances his death a little bit,” Mike says. “It’s nice that I have this to do. I don’t have any unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen. But hopefully, the word will get out, and people will have a chance to read them.”
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2008 – Shadow Barge and Manhole Steam
Since Michael DeCapite’s Through the Windshield appeared in 1998, thousands of novels have been published. Some have garnered attention, a few enjoyed fleeting popularity, and a tiny fraction have a chance at being remembered by posterity. Lost amongst the torrent of words is a novel that deserves to be remembered more than most, but like many creative endeavors of quality Through the Windshield never even got noticed. A prose song to the American post-industrial heartland, its unfashionable and heartfelt charms probably never had a chance against the last decade’s flood of clever and insubstantial showboating. A novel of undeniable and unusual merit, DeCapite’s achievement is so extraordinary that a belated appreciation must be penned in the hope it will cause at least one other person to pick up this book.
In a sense, this book is a 457-page epic ballad. It has a kind-hearted toughness that harkens to an earlier age and celebrates America’s people and places in a way that isn’t cool anymore, and by doing so captures a vestigial industrial milieu now fading into an irretrievable past. Narrated by that almost extinct species formerly known as the working class self-taught artist, it honestly describes a blue-collar white ethnic world that has almost passed out of existence. In contrast to the legions of overly-trained writers who know all the tricks but have nothing to say, DeCapite is possessed of a style all his own based on the truth of experience. That said, this book is not worthy because of what it is not, but simply because it’s beautifully written.
“Every time I hit that bridge I felt serious — exultant — committed! — like I wouldn’t leave Cleveland till I could grasp that view — possess it — articulate how it hit me: the lights — below and abreast and abroad — the smoke in columns — in billows and plumes and trails and trains and that lone leap of fire: a crown a lick a tower a crest an arm a spire of — goddamnit, missed again…
That much-maligned mid-American metropolis of former glory — the industrial backbone of the country that is now being turned into another Starbucks-ridden wasteland — is a character front and center in Through the Windshield. DeCapite succeeds in damning that callous erasure while celebrating what has been lost without devolving into maudlin nostalgia. He’s from Cleveland and of Cleveland, driving by “side streets of big old houses built for nobody-remembers-whom” and trenchantly capturing Cleveland’s faded, obsolete glamour. There are Sunday mornings on the railroad bridge, blades of grass growing from a crack, and “a slant of sunlight across old wallpaper reminds me of my grandmother…” Cleveland is where America was built, and DeCapite pulls off an updated Whitmanesque hymn to the city and its legacy. Driving with an old friend, not talking, they look at the stars and he thinks it’s “the only place there was.”
Driving a taxi is what DeCapite’s protagonist Danny does for money, a job alternately entertaining and soul deadening. Being a cab driver is the kind of job you never hear about anymore, though that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the basis of a down-at-the-heels, absorbing masterpiece. This is one of those rare books of girth and gravitas that under the right circumstances can be read in two days straight, a journey into someone’s mind that engages the reader so completely it lives up to the cliché of the “page turner” — not because it’s mindless, but because it demands a close reading that brings on a thoroughly enjoyable takeover of the thoughts and senses.
While driving his cab, Danny encounters all stripes of humanity, chauffeuring both businessmen and societal cast-offs all over Cleveland. Some days driving is wonderful and he’s “playing the city like a piano”; other days it’s a bane. There’s the “jittery confused language of promise the night was whispering” and its attendant downside. In his ruminations behind the wheel, Danny’s generosity of spirit goes a long way towards making for a believable and sympathetic main character. When he drives a sightless older gentleman out to nowhere to check up on a nonexistent housing development the man invested in, there’s a profound melancholy in that empty field. Helping a drunk put on his pants, refereeing an altercation between a raving transvestite from the projects and another rude fare in the car at the same time, and idly cruising are all part of his repertoire.
Then there are the bars, low-down watering holes that are now hard to find outside of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit (and even in those cities they are increasingly falling prey to young dandies bent on ironic takeover). The smell of stale beer on the floor is viscerally palpable at The Smokey Pig, The Suave Buzzard, and The Empire — “an old, free-standing brick building like a tooth waiting to be pulled.” The life and death of American cities, the moribund state of disused steel towns like Cleveland, are vivified through these smoky dens where it “always feels like last call, no matter when you come.” DeCapite, in short, sings an unapologetic ode to alcohol and its numbing pleasures; drink is a primal force, a constant through the seasons, whiskey in particular: “Whiskey in the evening was the perfect answer to all the questions that bother you during the day.” There’s being drunk and then there’s the momentary flashes of grace that alcohol provides, the kind of drunkenness that leads to “wanting to get everyone into a room . . . and maybe hold a séance. . . .”
Along with driving a taxi Danny does “spot labor,” one-night gigs that are a phantasmagoria of overnight shifts so crushingly boring and absurd they could make one long for Dante’s circles of hell. “Feed the machine” at the bingo card factory, the coffin handle factory, and the coffee pot factory, where a dwarfish cleaning woman hits Danny with her broom, and he senses this happening over and over to other unfortunates before him. The Nicaraguan at one job tells him the “machine doesn’t stop,” and what ensues is farcical nightmare reminiscent of Lucille Ball’s face-stuffing meltdown on the assembly line at the chocolate factory. Pushing a broom at one godforsaken trucking company he checks the clock every two minutes, tossing things on the floor just to have something to sweep up; he later reports, “Peeling an orange at 2:13 — Hiding gets to be harder than work.” It’s abstract and pointless, and in the break room he and other losers sit apart, unable to face each other. It’s a step up when after taking a lie detector test Danny gets hired at a porn store.
Cleveland is a city of Poles and Slovenes, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, the descendants of the former white ethnic heart of the American working class that have been mostly subsumed, assimilated, and dismissed as separate ethnicities by the general populace. In Ohio those racial distinctions are still salient and not just the butt of white trash jokes or a cause of sappy sentimentality. The St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church is a reminder of that European past, as are the poker games at the Greek coffee shop, run by people who are still strongly Hellenic. The racial differences aren’t necessarily divisive but they play an important role in the characters’ worldview, and how their Old World backgrounds determine their interactions and psychology is vividly brought to life.
Then there’s the weirdness, the usually benign insanity of the people surrounding Danny. Not ironic “weirdness” and not trying-to-be-odd-on-purpose weirdness, like the fabricated strangeness invented by people who have dutifully studied David Lynch’s films — this is genuine nuttiness. Uncle John is a prime example: a 40-year-old basket case that lives with his mother and is obsessed with gambling. That’s normal, but he also has a plastic toy that he calls his kid, thinks it can kill mosquitoes, and for whom he throws a one-man birthday party. One day Danny’s friend answers the phone with “just sitting around…listening to Frank Sinatra…and reading Mein Kampf” and again the reader gets the unalloyed eldritch reality of the heartland. An iguana eats donuts, watches Bonanza, and smokes cigarettes; during Vegas Nite at St. Ignatius a DJ plays a Bruce Springsteen [sic] song at full volume to a room full of retarded adults “having fun, dancing to music that doesn’t take them into account.” What connects all this behavior and makes it acceptable instead of grounds for social banishment is everybody’s shared addiction to gambling. The adrenaline rush of the roll of the dice rules over their lives. Good or bad, gambling provides an alternative to sitting at home listening to the hiss of the radiator; it’s a feverish compulsion that never goes away or at least rarely leaves these characters’ minds for more than a few minutes. Stefan Zweig’s explanation in Casanova: A Study of Self-Portraiture is illuminating on the subject of inveterate gamblers, whether they’re from 18th-century Venice or 20th-century Cleveland: “At the gaming table he can find an abbreviated recapitulation of the tension of life, artificial dangers and artificial rescues. The gaming table is the asylum of all men of the fleeting hour, the perpetual solace of the idle.” Card games are a way of life, a method of killing time, and as Danny says, it’s good “to sit with men who weren’t thinking about women.” The intricacies of track and baseball betting are all elucidated in their Byzantine complexity — five-team bets, splitting a couple of doubles, getting beaten by a 16/1 shot, and the dreams that you could “build a fucking empire on a ten-dollar bill.” There’s also watching the Lotto on TV and Danny’s next-door neighbor Ed listening to four different baseball games on four different radios at the same time. At one point Ed gets on a roll and sums up the high winning temporarily provides with “I can feel a halo around my head!” You can bet it doesn’t last, and in the end it’s like being addicted to heroin. As Ed says, “This playing cards six days a fucking week is killing me.”
If it’s not gambling, it’s broken-down women of the night. Danny and Ed sit in the car listening to the game on the radio while desultorily trolling for hookers, combining both pursuits. Prostitution, betting, and alcohol are their three primary fixations, and though certainly grim and occasionally overbearing, the book is saved from being a litany of whiskey-soaked accounts by Danny’s eloquence on what transpires out the window activities that have nothing to do with the aforementioned trio of vices. The three Puerto Rican girls walked by like “accordion music under the trees,” for example. This is exceptional prose fused to sociological observation, like watching the hillbillies at the gas station, “revving exhaust into the yard, barking in the sun and smashing bottles,” or how in the unremitting summer heat the corner gets hectic with people punching each other as Ed watches over it all on his porch with his gun, ready for action.
Ed is earthy, profane, full of life and outlandish behavior, Rabelaisian to the extreme, and a perfect foil to the quieter, more reflective Danny. His outrageous exploits balance out Danny’s introspective seeking, and his unforgettable presence also provides the narrative with a chaste male-to-male love affair of the Odd Couple variety. Ed is a font of crackpot schemes and stories, a teller of tall tales that just might contain a grain of truth, all offered in a cadence so present that readers might find his inimitable motor mouth mode taking over their consciousness: “I went to bed early — lost a fucking two-teamer I had with the Celtics, got beat in the last thirty seconds, after being ahead the whole game….10:30 the phone rings, it’s fucking Ichabod, says he talked to the Villain and Jones — possible emergency game at the Finn tonight. I told him I’m broke but the asshole won’t let up…” Drying his cigarettes on the radiator when they get wet, sitting around stripped to his shorts reading the sports section in classic slovenly male fashion, he then tells the story of the hillbilly woman who picked him up in West Virginia after his engine died during a snowstorm. She is huge, has disgustingly smelly feet, and when he gets on top of her and they try to make it, the bed is like “a sea vessel creaking at the moors.” He blames his father for everything, and when he recounts “shopping” trips that consisted of his father leaving young Ed in the car for eight hours while Dad got drunk at the bar and started fights, you can’t help but sympathize. The anecdotes about serving in Korea during the Vietnam War are high comedy because they are the opposite of heroic; instead of combat, his war exploits involved sleeping with a lot of Korean prostitutes, a touching and genuine affection for a sweetheart named Miss Kwan, and starting a near-riot when blind drunk he woke up all the soldiers in the red-light district one night and marched them back to base. On the less humorous side, Ballistic Meteor Crewman Ed blew up weather balloons and the 80-pound Koreans that held onto the rope for too long got carried away, never to be heard from again.
Ed’s slapstick employment adventures range from working for the Federal Reserve Bank and unwittingly signing away millions of Cleveland’s city funds to getting robbed while driving a Coca-Cola truck. His observation that “it’s a good reference to steal when you’re a Teamster” rings true, and on top of all its other attributes Through the Windshield happens to be an inadvertent and telling history of the disappointments of the American labor movement. There’s also the tortured story of Ed’s former girlfriend, a drunk who worked as a bartender and would fool around with whoever would buy her a drink. Finally her liver gives out, and they’re still arguing in the hospital right before she dies — pathos precariously close to bathos, but a genuine report on psychic pain. In a more comical and perverted vein, Ed calls up random women from the white pages in the face voice of “Lisa” to try and lure them into salacious encounters, though by not going out with a nice secretary because she’s “too classy” for his kind, he exhibits a self-awareness about protecting others from his chaos. Outrageously funny in a dangerous American jackass kind of way, setting off fireworks at the racetrack to cause a scene that he later recounts with relish, Ed is close to crazy, or at least addicted to causing mayhem. A prankster, his stories are both endlessly entertaining and poignant because underneath the bluster he’s a semi-tragic victim of circumstances. Straitened horizons are his lot, and it isn’t hackneyed when he rues his fate with the often-heard plaint that he could have been somebody.
Ed is smitten with an unhinged hooker named Angie who repeatedly proves the folk wisdom adage that “any woman under five feet tall and under a hundred pounds is crazy.” She uncomprehendingly endures a painful tryout at a strip club where her pathetic, literally offbeat dancing gets her politely turned away. When they take her to the movies she sits bolt upright “like a test-monkey strapped to a chair,” and after seeing a clock at a yard sale demands to stoop and wants to go back home because “We forgot to nail the windows closed.” She’s mean and insensitive to Ed, incapable of appreciating his attentions that border on love. Later after Angie disappears for a while, Ed sees her one morning surrounded by her possessions at McDonald’s, and it’s depressing beyond belief. “And — I was — I’s gonna talk to her, see if she needs anything, but…Aah I didn’t even go in there man, I…” There are plenty of others, like one woman Danny sees “shooting coke into a purple scar in her throat…another lonely form of entertainment.” It’s an inventory of discarded, disappointed, fucked-up people of both sexes, straining the reportage of despair to the breaking point.
This is a book of multiple ellipses, and always falls on just the right side of overdoing that particular stylistic flourish. Deployed extensively in the straightforward novelistic sections, they are also a prominent element in the short prose-poem pages that occur with regularity and stand out both on their own and as indispensible links in the longer narrative. The obvious reference is Celine, a writer with whom DeCapite shares an affinity for ellipses, although Danny’s path is related in an infinitely less acidic and bilious tone than the misanthropic French doctor’s. Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr., and John Fante also invariably come to mind — good old-fashioned, no-bullshit writing that plumbs the lower depths and celebrates the prosaic, the moment-to-moment pleasures, and the finding of contentment in “riding in cars, protective of a coffee between your legs.” The one- or two-paragraph pages of “shadow barge and manhole steam” are stream-of-consciousness prose poetry that succeed because they accurately echo Danny “hearing only the buzzing in my head” and his articulation of that inchoate noise.
DeCapite beautifully illuminates the tenuous fragility of grown-up male friendship, having Danny ruminate, “I wonder where Ed’s at. I wish he’d call me to come help him change a tire.” He gets to the heart of the murky longing and unspoken understandings and misunderstandings between men, the fraught tensions and male nonsexual friendship. It’s also about being young and looking for a mentor or guide, the malaise of not knowing. “I hadn’t found what I was looking for, or even what it was I was looking for.” For some inexplicable reason he wants an old guy named Cleetus to like him, and when Ed’s not home the loneliness and desire for interaction is oppressive, balanced out by contentment later when they are “sitting on Ed’s porch with a six of Schaefer’s watching the world go by.” Danny is an observer, somehow part of life but also at a remove. There’s ennui, plenty of it, the “feeling bored not only with what was happening but with anything that possibly could happen” coupled with the humble realization that sometimes “I’d had my day and certain nights are just someone else’s.”
Through the Windshield overflows with the true vernacular voice of the American working class sitting in the backroom, idling away time on union wages. Someone says, “Christ, we got more lawyers in this country than hamburgers.” When Danny comments, “I was listening as though to hear the bright language behind a code,” it’s an incredibly powerful and succinct elucidation of the disconnection between the solitary individual and everybody else. We are all trying to get through the code, to deal with that feeling of being left out of the party, when “something is going on and you wish it were you.” Class, that swept-under-the-rug topic in the United States, is an ever-present theme, especially between Ed and Danny. Though Danny works he’s not doomed like Ed, and though Ed entertains and indulges Danny he is also very aware of the gulf between them. “Someday you’ll be a millionaire, you’ll have a broad on each arm, you’ll go to the opera,” he proclaims, and though it’s probably not going to happen it does speak to the divide between Danny’s and Ed’s future prospects. Ed obviously has a fondness for Danny, telling him “You’re either gonna be a total success in life or you’re gonna be a total bum.” He’s an uneducated but literary kid hanging out, soaking it all in, and luckily that kid wrote this novel.
The experience must be had, recorded, and turned into literature. The present must turn into the past: “the soft october skies high above the bus station…i know i’m leaving, it doesn’t matter now exactly when.” A young man on a quest, Danny will go to New York and try and make it. Ed complains, “You’re abandoning me,” but in the end he’ll have the last word with one more story, a masterpiece about trying to pick up a hooker while reciting the rosary. And that’s the book — Ed’s stories, Danny’s stories, Cleveland’s stories; growing up, saying goodbye to all that, going forward. Through the Windshield triumphs by being about watching, listening, capturing for posterity, eulogizing life and “leaving the headlights off, so as not to disturb that shadow.” Then [Danny] and a friend go on one last drive with two cigarettes left before Danny leaves town.
Northern Ohio Live, July 2003 – An Italian Feast
The Italian American Reader’s got the goods,
from Talese and DeLillo to Cleveland’s own DeCapites.
It’s an eclectic anthology that encompasses writers as diverse as mob daughter Victoria Gotti and cultural theorist Camille Paglia. Sitcom star Ray Romano would appear to be out of his element, crossing pens with the literary likes of Don DeLillo and Dana Gioia. But The Italian American Reader is meant, says editor Bill Tonelli, to be a collection “representative of Italian American writing” and not definitive.
A former editor at Rolling Stone and Esquire, Tonelli waded through “a couple of hundred books,” making note of writings that he liked and selecting pieces that met his own taste as a reader. He threw out anything he felt was sappy or cutesy or merely nostalgic for Old Country. Those with stereotypical Mafiosi or nonnas brandishing wood spoons didn’t make the cut.
The anthology includes poetry, essays, short stories and journalism, plus excerpts from novels and important nonfiction works such as An Accidental Biography by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Unto the Sons by Gay Talese and Jerre Mangione’s An Ethnic at Large. There’s a selection from Mario Puzo’s estimable novel The Fortunate Pilgrim, a bit from DeLillo’s Underworld, a few pages from the fiction of Richard Russo, Ed McBain, Helen Barolini, John Fante, Philip Caputo and others. And, of course, an excerpt from Pietro DiDonato’s Christ in Concrete, perhaps the most revered of all Italian American novels.
The poets are well represented, too, by Gregory Corso, Kim Addonizio, Dana Gioia and John Ciardi, though Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a glaring omission, as are Diane di Prima and Sandra Gilbert.
One could quibble and grouse about who was left out. (Where is Richard Gambino’s classic social history, Blood of My Blood? the experimental fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino? Roland Merullo’s Revere Beach cycle?) Those are the shots an anthology editor leaves himself open to. But Tonelli did pretty well: A number of the most important Italian American writers are here, plus a few of the less expected; his selections provide enticing examples of each writer’s work.
The novelist, poet and literary biographer Jay Parini, who has two poems in the book, notes, “One doesn’t necessarily think of Italian American culture as extending beyond films and entertainment into the literary realm. But there is a vibrant and complex tradition of writing by this segment of American society.
“Bill Tonelli has done a marvelous job of bringing together a body of work by Italian Americans that might not otherwise get noticed as a phenomenon in its own right.”
Tonelli is pleased with the book’s reception and was delighted when 300 people showed up for the debut reading in March, at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square in New York. Having Nick Tosches (who wrote the book’s forward), Don DeLillo and Gay Talese as his main readers didn’t hurt.
Greater Clevelanders will be pleased to find work by two hometown writers in The Italian American Reader: Raymond DeCapite of Parma Heights, with a few pages from The Coming of Fabrizze, a classic Italian American novel, and his son Michael, whose short story, “Sitting Pretty,” takes place at Thistledown Race Track.
“‘Sitting Pretty’ just blew me away,” Tonelli says of Mike’s story. “It’s affecting, funny, engaging, well written. I loved the fact that it was kind of a portrait of his dad.”
It was an excellent selection by the editor. “Sitting Pretty” is a slice of life that illuminates the relationship between a father and son during a day at the track; it’s a great example of Mike DeCapite’s edgy, inventive talent. It also serves as a testament to his admiration and love for his father.
When asked if his dad had anything to do with his becoming a writer, Mike said, “It would be impossible for me to separate his influence on me as a person from his influence on me as a writer. The rhythms of his speech have had more influence on me than the rhythms of his sentences. Who talks to you in the crib?”
“Mike developed on his own,” says his proud father. “I’d make a suggestion now and then. But he had natural writing talent to begin with. He has unusual insight.”
Mike was born in 1962, not long after his father’s first two novels were published. He started writing in 1980, after he left Euclid High School and began keeping a journal of notes, short pieces and impressions. “Lots of weather … Plotless. A few years later I wrote a couple of prose poems, starting to sketch out some of the ideas that became Through The Windshield.” He worked on that book over the next several years during sojourns in London, Cleveland and Brooklyn.
Published in 1998 by his own Sparkle Street Books, Through The Windshield is a gritty, often hilarious fictionalized account of the young DeCapite’s days as a Cleveland cab driver, when he lived in Tremont and explored the city’s wild side. As with his father’s fiction, it is the terse, nuanced dialogue that grabs the reader. The book earned favorable reviews (including one in the Austin Chronicle by Harvey Pekar, a writer not unfamiliar with Cleveland’s street life) and has achieved iconic status in the literary “underground.”
While his father’s work often has a light, celebratory feel, Mike’s style and approach is more attuned to a hip, darker sort of realism, with an eye on the seamy side of life.
Mike has lived in San Francisco for the past 10 years, though he gets back to Cleveland on occasion. He is writing a column for Angle, the new Cleveland arts magazine, and is hard at work on a novel titled RUINED FOR LIFE!, a portion of which appears on his web page (www.sparklestreet.com). He’ll be in town in November to host a series of readings by some of the anthology’s contributors, including his father.
It was Don DeLillo, among others, who suggested that Tonelli include an excerpt from The Coming of Fabrizze, Raymond DeCapite’s classic 1960 novel. DeLillo, in fact, has been working behind the scenes, trying to see Fabrizze back into print.
“Raymond DeCapite is an important and neglected figure in American writing,” says Jay Parini. “More should be done to bring his work to light.”
His inclusion in The Italian American Reader was, as Tonelli puts it, a no-brainer.
“He is really an artist. Ray DeCapite is a tremendous writer.”
DeCapite, 78, has spent most of his life in the Cleveland area, in Euclid and on the near West Side. While he holds degrees from Ohio University and Case Western Reserve, he preferred the odd job, such as his lengthy stint as a clerk in a Euclid liquor store, because it allowed him time – and energy – for writing. He is the author of several plays and four other novels: A Lost King (1961), which, like Fabrizze, is out of print, Pat the Lion on the Head (1996), and Go Very Highly Trippingly to and fro and The Stretch Run, published in one volume by Sparkle Street in 2000.
His first two novels, The Coming of Fabrizze and A Lost King, earned Ray DeCapite the 1962 Cleveland Arts Prize [sic], as well as glowing New York reviews.
Fabrizze is the story of a charismatic young man who comes to America in the 1920s and makes a fortune in the stock market, only to lose everything in the Great Crash. Based on the life and character of DeCapite’s father, a restless man who lived apart from his family, Fabrizze is actually the second telling of the story: Ray’s older brother, Michael, used the same material in his 1943 novel, Maria. That book, however, was more infused with the sadness of their parents’ breakup, and not as brimming with the excitement of their father’s charisma and zest for life. (Michael, who wrote three novels, was killed in an auto accident in 1958.)
In contrast to his brother’s style, Ray used what amounts to a minimalist approach in The Coming of Fabrizze. There is little or no narrative and scarcely any scenic background; the story is told almost entirely through the characters’ conversation.
The Coming of Fabrizze received great notices when it was released in 1960. Orville Prescott said, in The New York Times, Ray DeCapite “has written a modern folk tale…filled with love, laughter and the joy of life.” The Herald Tribune thought it “a comic folklore festival,” while novelist John Fante called DeCapite “a writer of exquisite talents.” Fante seemed perplexed, though, “by the lack of realism in the novel,” notes DeCapite. “I don’t think he quite understood that I was writing a folk tale.”
And it was a folk story that Ray DeCapite set out to tell. He modeled it on the King Arthur legend. “I used the same format: The hero comes, helps his people, then something goes wrong, and he has to leave. The people wait for his return.”
That is exactly what happens in The Coming of Fabrizze. When Fabrizze loses his money – and everyone else’s – he leaves town. Rumors abound that the “golden one” will return soon and make everybody happy. So it was with DeCapite’s father: “He used to come back occasionally, and we’d see him … It was a heartache situation.”
So, why does Fabrizze have such a lighthearted touch, as compared with the gloomier Maria? “I had a little distance … My brother was nine years older and more aware when all that was happening.”
Critics have compared Raymond DeCapite to everyone from John Steinbeck to William Saroyan and Nelson Algren. So, who does DeCapite cite as major influences?
The Irish playwrights Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge.
“I was amazed that they could tell a story so completely, just using dialogue. That’s where I got the idea for the shape of Fabrizze, to concentrate on dialogue.”
The passage selected by Tonelli provides a great example. It takes place in the grocery store just opened by Fabrizze and his friends. Using little more than conversational one-liners, DeCapite magically conveys the hustle and bustle of a busy, noisy store, the smell of the cheeses, the olives and the cured hams.
It’s “a signature Italian American setting,” says Tonelli, one “steeped in the stereotypical, but without sentiment or mawkishness. It’s a beautiful, funny scene.”
More than 40 yeas after its publication, Raymond DeCapite is still – justifiably – proud of his first novel. It remains a vivid portrayal of a man and a community hoping to take part in the promise of the American Dream.
Fred Gardaphe, the foremost scholar of Italian American literature, states, “I see Raymond DeCapite’s work as some of the best unfamous fiction ever produced in the United States.”
Ray DeCapite is encouraged and pleased by Fabrizze’s inclusion in The Italian American Reader. “I would like to see my book back in print, on the shelves,” he says. “I think it belongs there.”
Parma Sun Post, 18 January 2001 – Life In Old Tremont Inspires Author
From his Parma Heights apartment, author Ray DeCapite can look out on the suburban sprawl that surrounds him and remember what living in a real neighborhood was like. A neighborhood where you walked to the market, church and school, and knew your neighbors by name.
Born and raised in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, which was then called the South Side, DeCapite was fortunate enough to have his extended family a stone’s throw away.
“My grandmother lived across the street and so did two of my aunts. My uncle lived in the neighborhood and at least a dozen cousins,” DeCapite said.
His family and his old neighborhood would provide the groundwork and setting for several noovels and three plays that would garner him comparisons to such venerable authors as Nelson Algren, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.
“Fante even reviewed my first novel,” DeCapite said.
DeCapite and the authors he is often compared to blend tough and tender together seamlessly in their stories of growing up in working class, immigrant neighborhoods. Algren had Chicago, Fante had Denver and Cleveland has Ray.
“We’re losing the neighborhood scene as a country,” DeCapite said. “We had a complex mix of nationality backgrounds and religions: Syrian, Greek, Russian, Italian and Irish. Growing up we got used to different backgrounds and acknowledged that since we were all there, we obviously belonged there — everybody.”
Despite the fact that his stories read as if he had been writing all his life, DeCapite didn’t feel the tug of his calling until later in life, publishing his first book when he was 37.
DeCapite spent time in the Army during World War II and went to college on the G.I. Bill.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to Ohio University, dropped out, went to Case Western, got a degree, got a master’s in English, and writing became a consuming interest,” DeCapite said.
After graduation, DeCapite went to New York City and stayed with his brother Michael for a few months.. Michael worked as a press officer at the United Nations and also wrote novels.
“He wanted me to stay, but I couldn’t find a job. My wife lived there for five years,” DeCapite said. “You would ride the train mornings and walk around looking for a job. It was very exciting.”
DeCapite would also spend several months living in San Francisco and Boulder.
DeCapite came back to Cleveland, got married and moved to Euclid. While there he spent 10 years working in a liquor store on Lake Shore Boulevard.
“I would find jobs where I could work afternoons. I need the morning to write, it’s the only time my head is clear,” DeCapite said. He called working in the liquor store the best job he ever had.
“It was a good job, physical, throwing the cases around. I would write in the morning and go into work at 10 or 11. The combination of physical work keeps your body tuned up, but you don’t really have to think about it,” DeCapite said.
Although a long way off from topping the best-seller list, DeCapite’s work hasn’t gone without notice. All three of his plays have been produced, and his novel, “A Lost King,” was tapped for the Paul Newman film “Harry and Son.”
He has also been awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Ohioana Award and the Cleveland Critics’ Circle Award. DeCapite has also inspired his son Michael to be a writer. Michael has recently started his own publishing company, Sparkle Street out of San Francisco.
It’s under the Sparkle Street banner that Michael has published his own novel, “Through the Windshield,” which tells the semi-autobiographical story of his time spent as a taxi cab driver in Cleveland, and a volume containing two of his father’s recent works.
DeCapite’s son also maintains www.sparklestreet.com where readers can sample the books, e-mail the authors and place orders.
Suzanne DeGaetano, of Mac’s Backs Paperbacks on Coventry where DeCapite does readings, said she thinks people are eager to read fiction about Cleveland.
“People are hungry to read fiction about themselves,” DeGaetano said. “And it appeals because it’s immediate. He has a flare for dialogue, he captures people’s insides and motivations. He captures a world that’s disappearing.”
Still using a manual typewriter to put his sharp dialogue on paper, DeCapite has no illusions about making one’s living as a writer.
“There’s no middle class in the arts,” DeCapite said. “Either you have a best-seller with movie rights or you can’t even afford an edition of the book. The rewards are high but you have to pay a price. It calls for dedication and tenacity.”
DeCapite, 75, says that he still has the fondest memories of his neighborhood and growing up. And when he gets nostalgic for the days when his family lived across the street, he can go visit his sister, who lives in the apartment building that faces his.
Cleveland Scene, 12 October 2000 – South Side Stories
Old Tremont Lies at the Heart of Raymond DeCapite’s Work
Maybe movies used to cost a nickel because they had to compete with free entertainment. Activities like street fights, stickball played with balls made from crumpled-up newspaper, or practicing the harmonica for the neighborhood variety show.
For writer Raymond DeCapite, raised on Cleveland’s immigrant South Side during the Depression, the front stoop was the best seat in the house. A trip to the corner store for tomatoes became an epic, if his cousin Danny, “probably the greatest character who ever lived on the South Side,” was nearby.
“He lived there his whole life,” recalls Ray. “He moved from a place on West 11th to a place on West 10th and used to say it was a big boost for his wife, because she finally had a bathtub. They used to take baths and showers at the [Lincoln Park] bathhouse.”
A storyteller, Danny “embroidered everything. But at the heart of everything, there was truth.” The younger Ray, a good listener, sharpened his ear for dialogue at the feet of a master, embroidering his own truth. He’s devoted his life to writing fiction that takes place on or near those familiar streets, sometimes calling them by name — Starkweather, Professor — and sometimes by imaginary names — Jackson, Coburn Place. The resulting lyrical, bittersweet little books are like the gold flames that flicker in the steel-mill Hades. Coated in the soot of the Tremont neighborhood, they’ve been overlooked by many and pored over by the few who’ve discovered them.
“They’re the kind of books that not many people know about, and the people who do want to steal them from the library,” reflects Ray’s son, Michael, a struggling writer in San Francisco. In August, Mike released his dad’s previously unpublished novellas, Go Very Highly, Trippingly To and Fro and The Stretch Run, through his small-press outfit, Sparkle Street.
Featured in a recent Kirkus Reviews series on “undeservedly neglected writers,” Ray has been compared to another Italian-American, West Coast writer John Fante, who shares his fondness for dialogue. But the wry tenderness with which Ray draws his characters — and the working-class neighborhood setting, framed by the looming behemoth of Cleveland’s industrial valley — is all his own.
Now 75 years old, Ray left Tremont before his son was born. He and Sally, his wife of 39 years, now live in a high-rise apartment in Parma Heights, a marble’s roll from Parmatown Mall. There’s no Danny around, but Ray can stand on the balcony and wave to his sister, who lives in an identical building across the parking lot.
Mike thinks his dad might be discouraged after years of toiling in obscurity. He hasn’t written much in two years, his longest dry spell yet. Sally wonders if she should set Ray’s typewriter on the kitchen table before she goes to bed.
“Because he gets up very early. And he’ll see that thing and, I don’t know — maybe sit down.”
He hopes to start something, he says, “before the snow flies.” His voice is gruff yet fragile, like cracking ice. And his black eyes, startling under a shock of white hair, give off a hard sparkle. He seems to be one of those people who grew up plain and aged into handsomeness.
Sally doesn’t think Ray was ever plain. They met 40 years ago, in the cramped news bureau where she was a secretary. He was applying for work. She eavesdropped on the interview, then tried to talk the uncomfortable-looking fellow out of taking the full-time job.
“I know it’s bad form, but I thought he was special,” she remembers. “And I knew that they would hire him.”
But he needed the money. His older brother, Michael, a promising novelist, had died in a car crash in Mexico, leaving behind a young family. And Ray’s own first novel, The Coming of Fabrizze, had been rejected by publishers for two years running.
Ray and his brother shared more than an occupation — they shared material. Their first books, worlds apart stylistically, both centered on their father: A gandy dancer on the Newburgh and Southshore railroad, he made and lost a fortune in the stock market in 1929. Defeated and in debt, he moved to Chicago alone, living with relatives.
A few years later, their father returned to work in a friend’s wine store. Unable to reconcile the past, he never moved back in with his wife and three children. He took an apartment on West 25th Street, visiting on Sundays. “He tried to be helpful,” recalls Ray. “My mother used to go over once a week, take his sheets and towels and pillowcases home, and clean them. She’d bring them back, and my father would give her five dollars. Which was quite a bit of money.”
Titled Maria, Michael’s was the more realistic novel. “Or so my brother liked to think,” says Ray. “I thought he was trying to tell an honest story. But my father felt that he hadn’t included all the things that should’ve been in the story, some things that exonerated him a little bit. His obsession. He had this dream of wealth.”
A trip to their father’s hometown in Italy, a mountainous village called Rivisondoli, crystallized Ray’s fictional intent.
“I was so moved by the beauty of the town and the surrounding mountains that I decided I wanted to do a different type of story, about a boy leaving a place like that. Leaving his family and friends. He was only 14 when he came over.”
Fabrizze, Ray’s debut, was a fairy-tale portrait of an idealistic youth who sailed to America, ascended to foreman in the railyard, married a beauty with gold-flecked eyes, got rich, lost everything — then whisked his family away to Chicago, while his adoring neighbors prayed for his return. Though the hero falls, the story ends on a hopeful note.
“I took the same materials and turned them into a folk tale,” recalls Ray. “A romantic kind of thing. It wasn’t tragic anymore. It was sad. Things fell apart at the end. But it was not like the story my brother told. I was seven or eight when my dad left, so I wasn’t so much a part of the family situation.”
When Fabrizze made it into print in 1960, it got glowing, front-page reviews from the New York papers. “Reading it is like discovering some new and strangely flavored wine — a special vintage which one enjoys without quite knowing why,” wrote a Times reviewer.
But that enthusiasm didn’t sell books. A Lost King, Ray’s second book, garnered similar critical reception and public indifference. Yet it’s very accessible, composed of barbed, funny, and desperate banter between an Old World father who believes in hard work and a New World son who would rather play the harmonica than break rocks.
Dennis Dooley, a Cleveland writer who likes to shoot the breeze with Ray at Sokolowski’s restaurant, calls Ray his “favorite subject.” In the South Side relic — its wood paneling adorned with pictures of President Clinton, the Pope, and Big Chuck and Little John — Ray’s picture is there, too, hung by the bar, where he likes to sit and chat with Bernie Sokolowski, his friend from the old neighborhood.
“Ray saw that there is not one American dream. There are two American dreams,” marvels Dooley of A Lost King. “One American dream is the dream of the father: You have the opportunity to work very, very hard and make something of yourself. But the son’s version is that America is a place where you are free to realize yourself and discover fully who you are. Where you don’t have to spend your life sweating in somebody’s factory.”
Ray had another setback in 1961, when his retiring editor was replaced by an unsympathetic sort. It would be 20 years before he’d see another novel published. But he persevered, completing several plays, two novellas, and a fourth novel.
To supplement Sally’s income, Ray “sold dreams” part-time in a state liquor store and received small windfalls from movie studios that took out options on his books. Not much came of those, although A Lost King was eventually bastardized into Harry and Son, a film directed by Paul Newman.
Ray took it hard, Dooley recalls. “I said, ‘Is it faithful to your book?’ And he said, ‘Well, other than the fact that they’ve changed the location from Cleveland’s industrial valley to Florida, and the family from an Italian family to a WASP family, and they’ve altered most of the dialogue in the book — it’s faithful to the book.'”
Occasionally, Ray gets a late-night phone call from the beyond — someone whose life was changed, recently or long ago, reading Fabrizze or A Lost King. Maybe his time hasn’t come yet.
“That could be,” he says, then pauses. “It better come pretty soon.”
Publishers Weekly – 27 March 2000
Veteran novelist DeCapite (The Coming of Fabrizze, etc.) writes dialog-centered tough-guy prose, punctuated with occasional moments of compassion. In this two-for-one offering, he reveals the whole spectrum of urban Italian-American living. The author masterfully captures the details of a culture: gambling and gamboling: “eating, drinking, eating”; Sunday afternoon pinochle games; down-on-their-luck men name Cirio, Chooch, Nowinsky and Screwy Phil; an ex-fighter-now-restaurateur name Figaro; Patsy Vovo, who hosts a regular poker game; a parrot named Paul Parrot; and superintendent Tony Zang. Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro is haunted by the echoie click of billiard balls, and concerns narrator Andy Farr, who writes bets for a man named “Cappy” and falls head over heels for Rachel, a feisty waitress, while awaiting the return from New York City of his older, slightly mythic brother, Roxie, a fledgling actor and self-professed “culture consultant.” When Roxie shows up Andy loses Rachel to his dashing sibling. Gambling haunts the small world of The Stretch Run, the weaker of the two tales. In each novel, however, a young writer-drifter (“writer” meaning both one who takes bets and one who constructs sentences) finds love, but only at the expense of losing his mentor. “Justice?” writes DeCapite in The Stretch Run, “Forget it.” Fans of Nelson Algren will delight in DeCapite’s prose, often composed in one-sentence paragraphs and seemingly infused with canzone. Despite the surface similarities though, DeCapite’s Cleveland is utterly his own, far away from Algren’s Chicago and he brings a Joycean ebullience to his stark, authentic depictions. Though they unfold slowly, in a sidewise fashion, in the end each novel packs quite a punch. With his brawny, playful dialogue, his sparse scenic descriptions and his brisk yet deep characterizations, DeCapite succeeds in doing what others only aim for: he has constructed a world that feels real.
Austin Chronicle, 19 November 1999 – Through the Windshield review
One of the better American novels published in the past several years, Through the Windshield is an autobiographical work dealing with the life of author DeCapite in the mid-1980s, when he drove a cab and worked as a day laborer. He lived in the Tremont section of Cleveland, although he doesn’t call it that. The culture of the poor and working-class people of Tremont and adjacent parts of Cleveland’s near West Side is among DeCapite’s major focuses. His closest friend then was next door neighbor Ed, who drove trucks making beer, wine, and soft drink deliveries. Ed’s a bright, street-smart guy in his late 30s who’s a sort of mentor to DeCapite, then around 23…The author, here named Danny, broadens his knowledge of Cleveland’s low-life scene, becoming acquainted with hookers, drug addicts, gamblers, and bookies. Danny isn’t just slumming, though. He’s living in Tremont because he doesn’t have much money and hasn’t figured out what his vocation is. He accepts the lifestyle of his neighbors to some extent and gets involved with them on a non-condescending basis. DeCapite takes his characters at face value and doesn’t ridicule them la Damon Runyon, although his book contains plenty of humor. Particularly poignant is his portrayal of Angie, a young, mentally disturbed prostitute with whom Ed becomes involved.
DeCapite writes poetically and impressionistically, sometimes isolating a relatively brief poem on one page with a lot of white space around it. The book opens this way: “Driving through the iron landscape of early Winter, early December: black and white and monochrome: dust of snow on slanted roofs, wide plains of iron, gone numb under a hard low sky, driving blank, gone frozen coasting the lines of longing, slowly scattering all invisible ghosts — even that of loneliness which usually follows all around and as close as a good friend –”
That’s the Cleveland I know and love. The winters pound you till you’re numb, there’s gray, dirty water in the gutter, slush on the sidewalk, and a slicing, cold wind coming off Lake Erie. And it’s only the middle of December — three and a half, four months of this to go. You forget what summer is. Wake up at five thirty in the morning and go to work in the dark, all hunched over and tight inside. DeCapite’s aware of that, and also of summer nights when people sit on their porches and bullshit while fireflies blink on and off, and of vacant lots where wildflowers grow among the leftover bricks of a demolished building.Next Page »