Sparkle Street Press
San Francisco Chronicle, 27 June 1999 – Through the Windshield Review
Ah, romantic Cleveland, Ohio: the dead-end factory jobs, the cruel weather and two-bit hustlers.
Yet in Michael DeCapite’s novel Through the Windshield, there’s beauty in the city’s shadows. The characters are gamblers, hookers, blue-collar prisoners and aimless kids, but somehow their lives are as funny and innocent as they are bleak.
It all filters through the eyes of the narrator, a young cabby named Danny. In the world of the novel, Danny sees more than anyone else, and nothing like anyone else.
Windshield’s structure is slightly unconventional. Brief, ravishing prose poems are woven into the narrative, often connected, as are the moods of the characters, to the season: “Driving through the iron landscape of early Winter, early December: black and white and monochrome: dust of snow on slanted tar roofs, wide plains of iron, gone numb under a hard low sky…” Spring is lighter: “I was riding that taxi hard on the night through the tender corridors of May with the windows down and the lilac blowing in: I saw some girls walking in the easy final grace of spring and threw an astral lasso around ’em…”
Most of the narration, though, happens in conversations between Danny and his friend Ed, a truck driver who lives next door. Danny often becomes a straight man, prompting Ed’s hilarious and pathetic accounts of his family and associates.
One of the most memorable is Ed’s half-uncle, Honest John, a dimwit in his 40s who lives with his mother and asks Ed to place bets for him because he can’t find a bookie who will take his money. John’s constant companion is a six-inch plastic hippo named Mike, who makes unreasonable demands and attacks insects and small animals. Ed depends on John, though, because he’s double-gambling with John’s money, using it instead to bet on his own hunches.
Random characters also crop up, such as the guy at the racetrack who inexplicably shouts “MAC” every 15 seconds. Ed can’t help making the acquaintance of someone with such a strange affliction. He also meets people through poker games, purchased sex and prank phone calls.
One of the reasons Ed’s stories are so great is DeCapite’s gift for dialogue. Conversations here are full of partial words and creative punctuation that artfully capture the pattern of the characters’ speech. The reader can hear every intonation, see every look. Here Ed and Danny are looking through some of Ed’s old photographs:
“That’s me in the service of my country.”
“I was a Ballistic Meteor Crewman; that was my title.”
“I blew up balloons.”
“It was very specialized and high-polished — ”
Ed is always entertaining, but Danny remains lonely. He misses his ex, and he’s tempted by another woman who’s pretty well out of his reach. He doesn’t know how to fill his days.
In Ed’s world, Danny is surrounded by examples of what a man can become if he’s got no ambition: a lifelong small-time gambler, living from dollar to dime with no hope of change.
For example, Jimmy D: “His face when he takes off his shades is like a small full moon seen through a passing cloud. He has the wide glazed look of a man who’s been watching baseball bets go out the window since the days of Ty Cobb…of a man who thought he’d seen every way a horserace can be lost.”
Danny has so much affection for these frail souls, though, that he’s drawn to them, almost wants to be like them. We wince as Danny loses his taxi job, coasts on Visa and friends for a while, then starts working nights as a spot-laborer. Eventually, he realizes what’s missing and spells it out in a letter to his friend Duke. “I think I wanna write a novel. I’ve never felt that being was enough. As though if no one’s watching, it ain’t real.”
So we readers are Danny’s witnesses, and this book is as real as could be: full of original, indelible characters whose lives blow with the wind and can change any minute.
Cleveland Free Times, 16-22 December 1998 – Lost Highway: Through the Windshield, Darkly
by Frank Green
For almost a decade, it existed as a kind of ghost book, disembodied but with a variegated voice that whined and whistled and wailed like the wind through an underground tunnel connecting the literary subcultures of two cities. Michael DeCapite’s renditions of rollicking riffs from his unpublished novel Through The Windshield highlighted many a poetry reading on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and south side of Cleveland in the late 1980s. And it wasn’t long before the book developed a small, enthusiastic cadre of admirers. After years of unsuccessful attempts to defrost the ice of editorial indifference that occluded his legendary Windshield from wider public view, DeCapite’s cracked the glass by publishing the book himself.
The story of a young Cleveland cab driver just past the cusp of adolescence, Through The Windshield is based on events in the author’s life, but it darkens the starry-eyed romanticism of many autobiographical first novels with a pen dipped in the smoky black ink of industrial decay. It’s Look Homeward, Angel from a boarded-up home, On the Road on streets that lead nowhere. Without sanctifying its characters or hoping for a better future, it seeks poetry in poverty, wisdom in waste and beauty in decrepitude, stuffing its pockets with satire and wearing romanticism on its sleeve as a talisman against cynicism.
As a teenager inspired by punk rock, Mike DeCapite read the usual subversive authors (William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jean Genet). Their leathery, irreverent hides lurk in the shadows of Through The Windshield, which is occupied by bums and criminals who might have ended ass up in its pages after stints in better-known books. But it’s the influence of two less canonical writers that makes DeCapite’s books so unique. From Louis-Ferdinand Celine, he learned to balance pathos, humor and poetic description, making music from the rhythmic juxtaposition of unlike parts. From his dad, Raymond DeCapite, he learned to find radiant silk hidden under the stonewashed denim of everyday life.
Through The Windshield has an elliptical episodic structure that fits perfectly with its tentative tone. Danny, the protagonist, lives alone in a dingy Tremont apartment, back when it was still a tattered slum called the South Side. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend and is perpetually strapped despite a series of dead-end jobs. A lonely, broke and broken-down soul, he lives in the ellipses of a life going nowhere, in the margins of events and the dot-dot-dots of dreary days and dismal nights. But it’s during these twilight interludes between things that he finds music in the sound of falling ash and beauty in gradations of gray sky.
His neighbor, Fast Eddie, an unlucky middle-aged gambler who takes the young man under his flea-bitten wing, is way ahead of him. While Danny takes refuge in poetry, Ed finds shelter in a cynical but highly developed form of self-deprecating humor. The stories he tells Danny about his foibles and those of his fellow losers, and his misadventures with the crazy, fucked-up women whose disconnected phone numbers fill the little black book of his life, are hilarious. But shelters can turn into prisons, and when Ed’s pursued by a beautiful, intelligent young woman who sees the nobility buried under his abject demeanor, he’s unable to respond because he’s convinced he’s unworthy.
There are a lot of reasons to read this book. Read it for the gambler’s lingo and hysterical tales of bums gone to seed. Read it for the poetic description of Cleveland’s harsh seasons, industrial landscape, urban blight, and quick sketches of inner-city denizens. Read it for nose-thumbing diatribes on the absurdities of temporary factory work and night-time cab driving. Read it for its humor. Read it for its pain. Or read it for its language, a hard-boiled version of beat expansiveness. One thing’s certain: with all the different and sometimes contradictory things that this book accomplishes, you’ll never read anything else like it.
Cleveland Free Times, July 1996 – Baked In Industrial Fire
One of my favorite books is by a writer from Cleveland. A Lost King, by Raymond DeCapite, was published by David McKay Company in 1961. I’ve read it several times over the years, and each time I’m struck by nuances I’d missed. A hearty bread flavored with Old-World spices baked in industrial fire, the novel has lost none of its vitality or immediacy over the years. A quiet dignity and tenderness peeks out through an arch tone blending pathos and humor.
Set on the South Side, in the neighborhood now called Tremont, among Polish, Italian, and Greek immigrants living on grimy Lincoln Court, it’s a brilliant portrait of the proletariat work world and everyday life in the inner city in the 1950s. The plot is simple. A teenager is thrust into adulthood following his mother’s death. When his sister marries and moves away, Paul Christopher and his father, Carl, recently retired after years in the mills, are left to fend for themselves.
Paul is a dreamer who loves to play the harmonica, and he struggles to maintain an irreverent, amused view of the world, but the people around him don’t understand his poet’s heart. The girl he loves, Peggy, passes him up for a boy with more ambition. Carl makes him try a series of alienating jobs, jobs with benefits and a chance for advancement, but Paul conspires to lose them all, stubbornly struggling to gain his father’s love without compromising his principles.
The playful banter of father and son, dripping with irony and sarcasm that’s sometimes good-natured and occasionally cruel, captures the universal conflict between the ambitious, old-world values of parents and the stubborn, care-free attitude of youth. The book’s greatest joy is its language. Crisp and precise, honest and down-to-earth, it turns everyday speech into music.
Though both A Lost King and an earlier novel, The Coming of Fabrizze, a mythically elegiac tale about Italian American immigrants, were highly praised by critics across the U.S., England, and Ireland, they’re long out of print. You can find them in libraries, and occasionally somebody will rediscover them and write an appreciation, as Thomas DePietro did on the cover of Kirkus Review last year, but they’ve been left out of the canon of modern American classics.
Though he’s lived in Cleveland most of his life, DeCapite doesn’t think of himself as a Cleveland writer. “I don’t believe there are good writers who have only regional appeal,” he says. “You can call Nelson Algren a Chicago writer because his books are based in Chicago, but he’s read all over the world.”
In the 35 years since publishing his early successes, DeCapite’s written three more novels and three plays. The plays have been produced around the country, but he’s yet to find a publisher for the novels. “My editor at David McKay died,” he explains. “The market is very tough these days. Publishers have this jackpot mentality, they’re worried about ancillary rights, so the novels they buy tend to be plot-driven things that would make good movies.”
One editor, he tells me, turned down DeCapite’s latest novel, Pat the Lion on the Head, because its hero is a garbage man. The author worked with University Editions in West Virginia to print a small press edition. The new novel shares many characteristics with A Lost King: a supporting cast of expertly sketched characters swirling around two major figures, an inner city setting on the near West Side of Cleveland in the 1950s, a concern with the everyday pleasures and humiliations of common laborers.
Through a masterful use of dialogue, it tells me the tale of a man whose spirit has survived a hard life. Christy is an aging, lonely veteran who sweeps trash at the West Side Market, working hard when nobody’s looking, challenging his supervisors, befriending the merchants, and cutting out frequently to toss down shots as Sharkey’s Bar. He adores his widowed sister, Mary, and his visits to her are among the finest scenes in the book.
But it’s his relationship with Jenny, a lonely widow who works at a bakery stand, that is the bittersweet heart of the story. Christy and Jenny circle each other for awhile and then bravely make a go at love. They take adjoining rooms in a boarding house and spend a lot of time at Sharkey’s, tanking up on alcohol, cigarettes, and fresh food, and making tentative stabs at intimacy. They’re off again, on again, alternately bantering, cajoling, scolding, teasing, attacking, soothing, and encouraging each other.
It doesn’t work out, and, as in A Lost King, the reader’s left wondering what’ll happen to the hero in the end. The intersection of solitude and alienation with community and love remains a central theme, but the tone here is more somber. When Paul is left alone, you hope it’s temporary, that his very youth will rescue him. He hasn’t been beaten down yet. Here, you know it’s permanent, that Christy has lost his last chance.
Kirkus, 01 September 1995 – Making Music Out Of Misery
We are pleased to continue our series of commentaries on undeservedly neglected books. Thomas DePietro, an advisory editor to the cultural journal Italian-Americana, marks his tenth anniversary this month as a reviewer for Kirkus. –Anne Larsen
If truth be told, ethnic novels resurrected in the spirit of multicultural rediscovery seldom transcend their value as sociology or group uplift. One exception is the work of Raymond DeCapite, whose name keeps popping up on bibliographies of forgotten Italian-American fiction. After publishing two novels in the early ’60s, DeCapite more or less disappeared from the literary landscape (though he still lives and writes in his native Cleveland).
His first novel, The Coming of Fabrizze (1960), is a celebration of small working-class community in Cleveland during the ’20s. What distinguishes this almost mythic tale of an immigrant-who succeeds by virtue of hard work and honesty-from other diaspora narratives is not only its good-natured tone, but its poetic language. With an amazing ear for the lyrical patterns of everyday speech, DeCapite chronicles Fabrizze’s eventual failure. But it’s not a down-and-out denouement: His neighbors still love the man who brought them hope and joy and music.
A Lost King (1961), DeCapite’s second published novel, is a small masterpiece, so unique (and quiet) in spirit and style that it’s easy to see how it was lost in the literary maelstrom of the time. For one thing, this elegant little novel beautifully captures the double consciousness of American ethnicity in its tale of emotional struggle between a son and his father. The weary Old World realist, a worker retired from a Cleveland factory, cannot fathom his carefree boy. A New World dreamer, young Paul lost two thousand years of world history (as he puts it) while mooning over robust Peggy Haley in class. But he doesn’t get the girl. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, she can’t figure out this almost moronically happy slacker. Paul fails miserably at all the success-track jobs he pursues, while he finds total contentment playing his harmonica (“making music out of misery”) and selling watermelons from a truck. As the fires from the steel mill light the skies, Paul trades barbs with his grumpy, nihilistic father. The writing is expert; it’s hard to think of any other novel that describes butchering meat as a poetic dance. But such are the unexpected-and remarkable-pleasures to be found in the long-out-of-print work of Raymond DeCapite.
Northern Ohio Live, April 1984 – The Movies
In the months before the nationwide premiere of Harry and Son on Friday, March 3rd, two of the movie’s three principals immersed themselves in the rituals surrounding the release of a major motion picture. Paul Newman—star, director, co-producer, and co-author of the screenplay—ventured from his home in Westport, Connecticut, to tout the production on television talk shows. The former Shaker Heights High School actor believed so strongly in Harry and Son that he had agreed to take the lead role as a condition of obtaining financing from Orion Pictures, despite his own choice of Gene Hackman to play the cantankerous construction worker. Ronald Buck, attorney and restaurateur turned screen writer, holed up in Malibu, California, to await reviews of his first labors as co-producer and co-author. For Buck, March 3rd would mark the end of a twelve-year struggle to get Harry and Son on the screen.
Only Raymond DeCapite, who works three days a week at a state liquor store near his home in Euclid, remained unperturbed by the impending public reaction to Harry and Son and uninvolved in plans to help get it off to a strong start at the box office. DeCapite, ultimately, had as large a personal stake in the movie as Buck and Newman, since the inspiration for Harry and Son was DeCapite’s own 1961 novel, A Lost King.
On March 3rd, an hour before DeCapite and his wife, Sally, left for Euclid’s Lake Theatre to catch the opening-night screening of Harry and Son, an old friend interrupted their dinner–an everyday dinner of linguine with homemade tomato sauce–with a prediction. “Raymond,” he said, “you’re going to have to wait until they’re clearing the popcorn boxes out of the theater to see your name on the screen.” Actually, a perfunctory acknowledgment of Harry and Son’s indebtedness to A Lost King was what DeCapite had been expecting and even hoping for. Months before the premiere of the film, his own reading of a copy of the screenplay sent to him by Buck had shown him that the movie would probably bear only a passing resemblance to his novel. And because of that, DeCapite had ruled out a chance for A Lost King to be reissued for potentially lucrative sales as a paperback.
“The offer was from a publishing firm in London, and the book would’ve been reissued under the title Harry and Son, not A Lost King. I refused. It would’ve been wrong, misrepresentative. You should never do anything just for money,” said DeCapite as Sally drove the few miles from their apartment on Knuth Avenue to the Lake Theatre. “So I’m on the phone with this literary agent in London, explaining my position. ‘Mr. Dee-cap-i-tay,” he says—pronouncing my name better than any of my relatives do—‘Mr. Dee-Cap-i-tay, you have made me very cross.’ He later wrote to Bertha Klausner, my agent in New York, to say that he respected my decision, although he didn’t understand it.”
“Anyway,” the fifty-nine-year-old DeCapite deadpanned, making a minute adjustment to the tweed cap that partially covered his shock of white hair, “what put an end to the deal was the fact that they wanted Paul Newman’s face on the cover. I wanted mine.”
Although he considers himself a teller of stories that take the form of novels (his first, The Coming of Fabrizze, came out in 1959 and was widely praised) and plays, DeCapite is an ardent fan of American cinema. A Lost King is the first of his stories to have been adapted for film, but because Ron Buck was keen to try his hand at writing, DeCapite did not contribute to the script. He is no stranger to the inexplicable permutations a screenplay can undergo, however. “James Agee, who was one of the best writers this country ever produced, and certainly one of the best critics, wrote the screenplay for The African Queen [released in 1951], yet John Huston, who was directing, brought in someone to rework Agee’s script,” DeCapite said as Sally pulled into the theater parking lot. “Agee ended up with the screen credit, although, in a sense, the script was no longer his.”
DeCapite’s knowledge of this particular writer’s nightmare came from his brother, Michael, who was James Agee’s friend and was in part responsible for the existence of Harry and Son. Nine years Ray’s senior, Michael distilled the experience of a youth spent at West 14th Street and Fairfield Avenue-—the edge of Cleveland’s industrial Flats—-into an acclaimed first novel entitled Maria, an account of Italian-American family life that is still recommended reading for college sociology majors. Two other novels, No Bright Banner and The Bennett Place, followed before Michael DeCapite’s death in 1957 at the age of forty-one. “Michael,” according to Ray, “would have accomplished extraordinary things. His work was moving in unusual directions.” Michael’s legacies to his brother were his demonstration that the writer’s life was hard but possible and his profound interest in the world of their shared upbringing, a world of churches and coffeehouses, of leisurely front-porch conversations on summer evenings-—a world of stories told and retold. In A Lost King, Ray, who “started writing seriously” after graduation from Western Reserve College in 1952, mined the same rich vein Michael had in Maria, and the result was a story as evocative of place as anything by Saul Bellow about the city of Chicago. From reading the screenplay, DeCapite already knew that Buck and Newman had shifted the locale of Harry and Son from Northern Ohio to Florida; that much of the world of A Lost King was gone. He was curious to see whether the movie had managed to preserve any of the contentious, loving, often funny relationship between father and son that is at the center of his novel.
“Look how crowded it is,” remarked Sally as she angled the DeCapites’ car into a parking space behind the theater. “I bet it’s all family.” Her joke had a basis in reality. The whole clan turned out for the two plays DeCapite had had produced in Northern Ohio-—Things Left Standing and Sparky and Company, which won the Cleveland Critics Circle Award in 1980 and went on to a production at New York City’s Il Teatro Rinacimento, which presents works by and about Italian-Americans. (DeCapite’s third and most recently completed play, Where The Trains Go, has so far been produced only in Boston.) True to form, the sparse audience at the movie was dotted with DeCapite’s family and friends (“Pardon me, are you Mr. DeCapite? Only kidding, Ray.”)
“Well, you have to admit, he is gorgeous,” Sally said as Harry and Son’s opening scene revealed an impossibly youthful looking sixty-year-old Newman. As the DeCapites sat and watched a film that altered A Lost King nearly beyond recognition, all their remarks were similarly complimentary, polite, and even charitable (“That’s a nice shot, isn’t it?” “Very dramatic.”) They were watching the culmination of twenty-two years of talk about what a great movie A Lost King would make-—talk by television director Peter Baldwin, who purchased the first option to adapt the novel for the screen in 1962 and who later tried to interest Italian director Vittorio De Sica in the project; by Los Angeles musician Vincent D’Onofrio, who mortgaged his home in a failed attempt to raise a production budget; and finally by Ron Buck, who heard about the novel from Marlon Brando’s sister, Jocelyn. “I knew as soon as I had read it that I wanted to try making a movie out of the book,” said Buck. “I thought it was wonderful—the character of the son especially.”
The story that captured the imaginations of Baldwin, D’Onofrio and Buck is an old one: A young man takes his first steps toward knowledge of self and the world beyond his home, in the process confronting and challenging a father whose values differ greatly. What makes A Lost King much more than a mass of generation-gap clichés are its sharply observed characters: the father, an Italian immigrant bereft of a beloved wife and stripped of physical strength by illness, who rages against life; and his son, a sweet-natured goof of a kid with a capacity for enjoyment of life sorely lacking in his father.
“Strictly speaking, the story isn’t autobiographical. However,” DeCapite smiled slightly, “I was comfortable in using a first-person narrative in the book, so I guess that says something. Most people assumed I was writing about my father, Dominick, who came to this country at the age of sixteen. That wasn’t absolutely true, although there were things in that character that were also in my father-—the harshness, for example. My father was a very stern man, very strict and particular. As for the character of the son, well, his work experience was like mine. I had a lot of jobs in my time. When I was young, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do.”
Harry and Son changes much more than the locale of A Lost King. New characters have been added to supply romantic and erotic interest, and emphasis has shifted from the son to the father–radical alterations that were necessary, according to Buck, because “I didn’t feel that Ray’s book was going to make it commercially.” Tilting the balance of the movie still further in the direction of the father are the performances: Newman steamrollers the goofy Robby Benson (“a Hershey Bar left out in the sun,” as one of DeCapite’s cousins dismissed him) in the role of Harry’s son, Howard. Even more fundamental, however is the difference in texture between DeCapite’s novel and the film. The anger and urban grittiness of A Lost King have been replaced with upbeat insights fresh off the greeting-card rack, played out against a background of sun and surf. The end of DeCapite’s novel finds the character of Paul alone in the world but in possession of a level of self-awareness and strength he had lacked before; the last scene of Harry and Son shows Howard with a ready-made family, a career as a writer and a laid-back demeanor that suggest he found them all while strolling through a shopping mall.
As the gulf between A Lost King and Harry and Son became increasingly obvious, dismay and worry about Ray’s reaction settled over the opening-night assembly of friends and relatives, most of whom had read the novel as a matter of course. When DeCapite, exhibiting signs of restlessness, at one point got up and walked to the back of the theater, his Aunt Rose Clement elbowed her daughter Rosemary Terango. “Sweet Jesus,” she whispered. “Ray’s leaving!” As it turned out, DeCapite was only looking for the men’s room. He returned in plenty of time to see fulfilled the prophecy made by his friend earlier in the evening. With the high-school ushers who tidy the Lake Theatre to keep them company, Ray and Sally watched the screen intently. Finally, at the very end of the credits appeared the line: “Suggested by the novel A Lost King by Raymond DeCapite.”
Afterward, a small group gathered around the DeCapites in the theater lobby, debating the suitability of the movie’s ending and offering what congratulations they could. “I thought it showed relationships very well,” a friend of the family hedged. Someone suggested a round of drinks at the nearby Emerald Room by way of an impromptu opening-night party. “The Emerald Room? In Euclid?” asked Sally. “Is that in the Hotel Revco?”
Seated in a draft near the door of the bar (which turned out to be called the Emerald Isle) and nursing a boilermaker, DeCapite found himself surrounded by women, a situation he frankly enjoyed. “The women in my life,” he said, “have been sensational.” In particular, he meant Sally, a secretary at the Cleveland Clinic; his sister Marie DeCapite (“always there in the clutch”), principal of William Rainey Harper Elementary School in Cleveland; and his cousin Rosemary Terango.
“Let’s go to my house,” Terango suggested as conversation became difficult above the din of rock music. “I’ll make coffee.” Once at the table in Terango’s cheerful red and white kitchen, DeCapite relaxed and voiced his thoughts freely. Terango served coffee, bread, sweet red peppers cooked in olive oil and a shot glass of Canadian Club, which she, Ray and Sally sipped communally.
“For the last three or four weeks,” said Ray, “friends have been telling me, ‘I saw Paul Newman on TV,’ or ‘I saw Robby Benson on TV, talking about Harry and Son.’ If they had asked my advice, it would have been: ‘Don’t release it. Just keep talking about it.’ That way, it would have become an American myth. I have to think of the movie as apart from the novel, since they were so different. But even allowing for that, I thought it was pretty bad.”
“Was it?” asked Terango’s husband, John, who had just gotten home from work. “Good. I voted for it to be bad.”
“There weren’t enough scenes where people really talk to each other,” DeCapite said.
Talking to each other is what characters in DeCapite’s novels and plays do best and most frequently, and little wonder: DeCapite has a storehouse of family tales–and relatives who are adept at retelling them–for inspiration. A number of these revolve around his eighty-four-year-old cousin, Danny Sacco, whose scapegrace charm figures prominently in the characters of Sparky in Sparky and Company, Paul in A Lost King, and although unsuccessfully realized, Howard in Harry and Son.
“Things just happen to Danny,” said DeCapite of the man who once held a job dusting desks at a government office in downtown Cleveland. Like Paul’s in A Lost King, Sacco’s exuberance has often been displayed with a fine disregard for consequences. He was especially fond, when visiting Ray’s grandmother, of picking her up and whirling her over his head, oblivious to the fact that she considered such displays highly undignified. One day she cured Sacco of his impudence by whacking him on the head with a shoe she had somehow managed to take off in the midst of an aerial tour of her kitchen. Rosemary, who had listened with a grin to what was clearly an oft-told tale, interrupted Ray with one of her own. “After the opening performance of Sparky and Company, Danny came up to me. ‘That kid,’ he said, meaning Raymond, ‘is always telling stories about me. I wouldn’t mind, except that he tells them wrong. I’m gonna get a lawyer.’”
Storytellers like DeCapite, who chart the courses of the human heart, have fallen on hard times. In the United States, film and publishing industries alike have shown increasing reluctance to invest in anything but potential blockbusters, which accounts for Ron Buck’s inability to find backing for Harry and Son – even with commitments from actors like Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Anthony Quinn–until Newman agreed to play the lead. Fonda, Robards and Quinn were simply not viewed as “bankable” in the same way that Newman was. Despite the fact that his two published novels received a great deal of critical praise, DeCapite may well face an analogous problem in finding a publisher for his recently completed novel, Pat the Lion on the Head, which has as its setting Cleveland’s West Side Market. “My agent gave the manuscript to a reader–someone who is paid to evaluate works of fiction,” he said. “The reader’s comment was, ‘This is writing of a very high order, but it has no commercial potential.’”
“In this life,” DeCapite had said earlier in the evening, “we don’t need luck as much as stamina.” If that is true, then DeCapite has all the stamina he needs–composed of equal parts intelligence, humor and grace under pressure–to shrug off disappointments like Harry and Son. Expect to hear more from Ray DeCapite. After all, he has many more stories to tell.
Roberta Hubbard is a contributing editor of LIVE.
Ohioana Quarterly, 1980 – Pizza for Breakfast: The Novels of Raymond DeCapite
If it be granted, in our world of antiheroes, that fiction and drama today tend to emphasize the sordid, the brutal, and the hopeless, it is well to reflect that another, older, and far longer tradition exists. Over forty years ago an Ohio author named Charles Allen Smart wrote, at the end of R.F.D., a remarkably fine book about life on an Ohio farm, of the “Homeric sailors, who wept, unashamed, and had their fires and games, and then ate well, and drank, and slept beside their little boats in the starlight.” Living unsophisticated lives in a simple age, they faced life and its burdens simply and courageously. In our own century there was Thomas Wolfe, with a great gusto for living and an enduring awareness of what wealth life can offer. I think of these authors and others like them when I return to the three published novels of a living Ohio author, Raymond DeCapite.
When, in the spring of 1960, I read Mr. DeCapite’s first novel, The Coming of Fabrizze (New York: David McKay), it was with a growing sense of excitement. Here, I felt, was an impressive new talent, equal to that of William Saroyan in capturing the lifestyle, the words and actions of an ethnic group, Italians, in a particular milieu, Cleveland’s near-west side. The book had life, I thought. The characters were real; it had lyricism: it sang. Reviewing it for Best Sellers, I wrote of its “simplicity, freshness, and charm” and compared it to the Papashvilys’ Anything Can Happen for humor and Robert Nathan’s One More Spring for its mingling of humor, pathos, and optimism before adversity. Here was a kind of modern heroism.
Since then, Mr. DeCapite, who lives in Euclid with his wife and eighteen-year-old son, who also wants to write, has had two other books published: A Lost King (McKay, 1961) and Pat the Lion on the Head, in magazine format. Each of these shows the same close observation of humankind and the ability to create characters whose lives and fortunes remain a subject of concern. If one test of a good writer is the ability to create living characters, Mr. DeCapite succeeds brilliantly. He admits that some of his characters have a real-life basis: that origin, however, is insufficient to make characters live on the printed page. A certain talent or magic is needed to transmute real-life people into living characters in a story. Mr. DeCapite’s older brother, Michael, killed in an auto accident in 1958, also possessed this gift, but his was as more conventional fiction.
In his three published novels, Mr. DeCapite deals essentially with the same milieu but in a different tone in each. That of Fabrizze (which he called “a Tale”), is almost wholly joyous. In it, young Cennino Fabrizze, golden-haired and blue-eyed, comes to America from Italy, bearing a cup of earth from the mountains of his native Abruzzi. In Cleveland he becomes a kind of success symbol, rising from water-boy for a railroad gang to supervisor; starting his own grocery; becoming rich by investing in stocks; and at last, departing after the crash of 1929 to Chicago, a seemingly far-off city whence he writes irregularly as his friends await his triumphant return.
Fabrizze, both a folk-hero and a symbol, like King Arthur brings order, helps and protects his people, departing at last to a half-mythical place while his people, remembering his goodness and wisdom, hope for his return. The cup of earth become a kind of Grail, to be cherished and guarded as a reminder of their source of strength. Essentially the book is an apologia for American opportunity, for the men of Abruzzi, and for the existence of heroes. It presents life filled with confidence and optimism and fully lived.
To find livingly real scenes in this book is easy. The best are comic: Mendone and Poggio cooling their feet in a stream on a hot day as the railroad gang, tired of awaiting the water the pair were to have brought, descend on them; Fabrizze in search of a wife being pursued by women in search of a husband; Fabrizze wooing Grace Mendone in competition with Mancini the carpenter, whose test of the soundness of a chair he has made is to throw it down a flight of stairs; an unpleasantly grasping individual being countered by a piece of soap dropped into the grinder that is grinding cheese for him.
If the mood of Fabrizze is joyous (it would make an excellent musical), that of A Lost King opposes the lighthearted with the somber. Each of Mr. DeCapite’s novels is original in its own way, perhaps inspired by different moods. Writing in The New York Times for 27 September 1961, Orville Prescott described Fabrizze as “an engaging modern folk tale so full of love and laughter and the joy of life that it charmed critics and numerous readers and was generally considered on of the most promising first novels of 1960.” He found King “by no means a failure” but less “fresh, beguiling and original” than Fabrizze. But A Lost King is a different sort of book than Fabrizze. Fabrizze is an apologia for heroes; King is an apologia for dreamers. A more mature book, it deals with a more serious theme – the relationship of a father and son.
Paul Christopher, the dreamer protagonist of A Lost King, likes to play his harmonica atop a watermelon wagon. But his father, formerly a crane operator in a steel mill (Mr. DeCapite was once an oiler on such a crane) wants a conventional lad with conventional notions of success. They live on the wrong side of the steel mills (Cleveland’s south or near-west side again), and their house is daily filled with smoke. Paul tells the story. The widower-father, “a prisoner of his ruined body, left with a son who was a prisoners of every fancy,” in summertime curses “his hot cell of a bedroom and the little dusty house that creaked and crumbled in the night like an old ship being tossed by the sea.”
The old man’s body aches, and Paul rubs him with warm olive oil, ending the pain, and tries to lift his spirits. “Look out the window, Pa,” says Paul. “What a day it is! Look past the smoke. Look at that sun and sky. Something good is happening. I feel it in the air. Do you realize a baby’s being born every five seconds or so? Right now in fact. While I’m saying this. But he’s here! I hope he takes hold and never lets go! …He’s bringing something into the world that was never here before. Maybe it’s a new hope or a new idea about things. Isn’t it exciting?” But Pa can see only pain, old age, and a son who’s a failure. Paul’s gifts of newspapers, tobacco, and other items, and his special desserts for supper thaw the old man’s cold disregards not at all. When small, Paul thought his father had never been a boy himself but “had been born old and tough like a tree.” With years, however, came compassion.
At school, Paul shows off by eating cherry peppers without bread to lessen the heat, hoping to impress Peggy Haley. But Peggy thinks it’s silly. “The other boys go out for football and basketball,” she tells him. “Edmund Hatcher is studying hard to make the honor society. (Later he becomes a trainee with a bank, takes courses at night, and eventually marries Peggy.) You’re the oldest boy in the class, Paul and all you ever do is eat hot peppers. I don’t even know why I watch you.” Miss Riordan, Paul’s teacher, sends notes about him to his father and finally pays a personal call. Occasionally Paul deliberately stays after school and plays his harmonica for her as the skinny spinster gathers her papers and books. “Sometimes,” says Paul, “she stopped to look down at me and listen closely. There were precious moments when her eyes would go soft with some remembered love and I played and played with heart pounding within me as though that love could be saved to light her down dark ways forever.”
Like Fabrizze, this second novel has its moments, but usually at Paul’s expense. There is comic pathos in Paul’s inability to cope with the demands of his jobs. Hired as a trainee in a supermarket, Paul manages to cut himself badly while leaving most of the meat on the bones he has been hired to trim. The job lasts one day. Undoubtedly the funniest scene has Paul feeding folded plastic milk cartons into a gluing machine at the Dairy Carton Company. In the scene, suggesting something out of Modern Times, Paul, a Chaplinesque figure, can’t keep up with the demands of the machine; and when an imperfect carton (one with a bent edge) is fed into it, cartons go flying. “The gluing machine’s perfect,” says Paul’s foreman, and we are left to muse upon the imperfections of man. At last (on the first night of work), entranced by the beauty of a girl’s red hair at the other end of the machine, Paul must choose between being a machine himself and being human. The choice costs him his job, but it brings him an inner peace.
Then, says Mr. DeCapite in a memorably poetic phrase, as Paul thinks of his father, “The thought of him was like a pillar of smoke in the lovely blue of morning.” Later, as Paul awakens from sleep, he remembers his mother’s voice. “I thought,” he says, “it was the most precious think in life to come awake with the sound of a beloved voice.” But the scene with this father is painful, and as the old man leaves the house to smoke and rock on the porch, Paul, thinking that the neighbors have heard the quarrel, comments: “I was deeply ashamed for myself and my father.”
In this pathetic and perhaps tragic conflict of personalities there can be no resolution except as life itself resolves conflict. There is love and there is loss, and at the end there is, supremely, a song. In its greater intensity, A Lost King clearly marks an advance in the narrative artistry of Raymond DeCapite.
Mr. DeCapite’s most mature achievement, however, is the short novel Pat the Lion on the Head, which Cleveland Magazine published in its Christmas issue, 1976. The protagonist here is Christopher Ross, better known as Christy, and the setting again is Cleveland, more specifically the Public Market on W. 25th Street, where Christy sweeps garbage. Twice married, a soldier in both world wars, and now no longer young, Christy combines physical strength with a sense of his own worth. We see him clearly:
“Tied round his neck to catch sweat was a red bandanna handkerchief. A shapely olive-drab hat with brim upturned like a saucer lay cocked a little above the wrinkled moon of his face. His nose aimed down straight and then flared away below, as though spreading the anger of hidden eyes around thin lips into the challenge of square cleft chin. His shirt and trousers were olive-drab. The cuffs of those trousers were tucked into bulging brown army shoes that were honest first and last for the work to be done.”
He drinks coffee with a shot of whiskey in it at a nearby bar with the boss, runs errands for the merchants at the market, occasionally watches their stands for them, trims and washes their produce. In return, they give him quarters and let him select fruit. On Sundays, having soaked away the disorder and restlessness of the preceding week in a tub of hot water, he dresses meticulously – black silk socks, an undershirt of Egyptian cotton over white undershorts, a white Dacron-cotton blend shirt, a pearl-gray silk tie, black silk suit from Italy, shiny black shoes, and a Borsalino hat, coal-gray – and visits his sister.
At the market Christy meets a widow named Jenny who, like him, has known hardships and defeats, and this knowledge helps to bind them in friendship. Life for Christy is a succession of little things: coffee at Sharkey’s, conversation with Jenny, an occasional steak, trips by bus across town for a home-cooked meal with his sister, followed by television in the evening. To the world, these lives are unimportant; Mr. DeCapite reminds us that any life is important and that facing life courageously and with dignity constitutes the way to live. One cares what happens to this garbageman. We feel too for Mary, his sister, in her loneliness and semi-blindness as she waits for Christy’s phone calls and weekly visits. There is a touching scene in which he stands outside Mary’s door on departing, waiting to hear her move away from it, knowing that “there was nothing for her to do but turn back, back to those empty rooms.” In this book too there is loss, and there are problems, not always met successfully, but there is the attempt. At the end we see Christy trying, as Mr. DeCapite says in a memorable final phrase, “to take more somehow than was left to be lost.”
Although Mr. DeCapite uses essentially the same setting in all his works and the same ethnic community, which he knows first-hand, he manages to transcend the limitations of one people and place while, at the same time, depicting them vividly. Fabrizze and his friends become simply people who love life and celebrate it; Paul Christopher is any dreamer who finds his dreams challenged in the “real” world of work and competition for advancement; Christy is any older man, far from wealthy, who values and retains his self-respect. These are all people we would like to know: people who face life well, affirming that courage for one’s self and compassion for others are necessary for successful living.
Mr. DeCapite has commented that he could not write Fabrizze today. Of course not: one changes with time, and in twenty years he has matured as a literary craftsman as well as branching out. For he has experimented with drama, completing a two-act comedy, Sparky and Co., produced successfully in Lakewood, OH and Warren, PA in 1977 and 1978. Last autumn the Lakewood Little Theater presented a three-week run of tow of his plays, The Bulletin Board (a one-act) and Zinfandel (a two-act). Surely he deserves to be better known than he is as a man of letters. Like pizza for breakfast, Mr. DeCapite’s works are somewhat unusual, but they are probably all the better for their unconventionality. Certainly for their wisdom about life and how to live it.
Author: John S. Phillipson, Professor of English at the University of Akron, has eighteenth-century British Literature as his field of specialization but finds modern American literature of interest. In connection with this last, he edits the Thomas Wolfe Newsletter.
Ohioana Quarterly, Spring 1962
Raymond DeCapite was born in 1926 in Cleveland where he is now living. He holds an M.A. in English from Western Reserve University. The Coming of Fabrizze (1960) was his first novel.
Paul Christopher seemed touched, but with exactly what was a troublous question, though it must have been with something more than the whiskey his father, in indulgent moments, put in his coffee. Greeks would have said it was the gods, the Irish the fairies. Paul’s Italian father mostly swore, then alternated between cuffings and excessive kindness before giving in to desperation at the whimsical fancies and irresponsibilities of his late-come and deeply loved son. The mother had died when Paul was only a stripling. Then Nina, the older sister, had married, leaving him to grow up through high school doing the cooking and housework and more and more looking after the father who, after hard years in the steelmills, was retiring to social security and broken health.
Paul is the central character in Raymond DeCapite’s second novel, A Lost King, published last September. Like the winsome hero of The Coming of Fabrizze (1960), Mr. DeCapite’s Paul Christopher has some very great problems, and they do not all arrive merely from the Italo-American environment so sensitively depicted. Paul, too, has to cope with something fundamental within. Now that he is graduating at last from Lincoln High, he appears to be completely incapable of finding a useful, practical place in the adult working world of his day-laborer neighborhood. Other boys from these Italian, Greek, and Polish families seem fitted by nature to become bank clerks, or to trim meat off beef bones for Big Deal Stores, or to hoist bags of potash all day at the American Chemicals dock, or to feed milk cartons into the endlessly hungry jaws of a gluing machine. But not Paul. His mind is sensitive to every passing bit of beauty and his fancy can spin witty and whimsical and often charming nonsense, but he seems to be repelled by routines and cannot keep his interest fixed on practicalities. He has a gift for song that finds natural expression on a harmonica. There seems to be only one job he can hold – selling watermelons on Sam Ross’s horse-and-wagon outfit. And there is only one task in which he takes a vital interest – caring tenderly, even though erratically, for his ailing father.
What comes of Paul’s problem provides Mr. DeCapite’s unusual story. A Lost King is a strange and beautiful narrative. Like The Coming of Fabrizze, it has a rare individuality in both material and technique that has sent discriminating critics into enthusiastic shouts of “little classic” and “an evocative and oddly moving song.” The Fabrizzes and Paul Christophers of this world are indeed endowed with unusually sensitive and often eerie insights. They have intensely emotional and glowing personalities. They have the qualities, in other words, that can send them to extremes of success and failure, hope and despair and hope again. Most readers have never met any one just like them – except perhaps within themselves, for the stories became memorable in a highly personal way.
Raymond DeCapite is a native Clevelander, who draws the stuff of his books from his family and community heritage. Both his father and his maternal grandparents were immigrants from Italy. A graduate of Cleveland schools, DeCapite attended Ohio University and holds a B.A. from Cleveland College and an M.A. from Western Reserve University. He knows the grubbier side of fighting for a living too, we are told, having a worked, during his years of winning an education and creating his first books, as a shipping clerk, a restaurant employee, a cashier, a crane oiler and a trade magazine hack writer. This background may explain why these first novels seem to grow naturally out of a very real and vital world of experience.
In no sense however, does Mr. DeCapite write a merely regional or local-color story. It is very significant of the way he views the story-telling act, I think, that even though both Fabrizze and A Lost King are told largely in the simplest of natural-seeming dialogue, the author eschews dialect almost completely. Nevertheless, the talk is true to character. It is in turn comic, tender, racy, idealistic, but it seems to have little need for the distortions of speech and idiom or for the excesses of cheap shock talk that are often used to put mere surface on verisimilitude. True talk is made dynamic by gist and intent, by the inner drives of character. Like Paul Christopher’s essential urge to find fullest expression in his harmonica music, there is something in a DeCapite story that seems always to be pushing for statement in poetry – never, one hastens to add, with any lessening of the author’s vigorous masculine vitality. A young novelist who can accomplish effects like these has much art already at his command. Since, we are told, two more novels are already in manuscript, we may well look ahead eagerly to see where Mr. DeCapite’s fine controls are moving.
But back to Paul Christopher. The dying father knows that something must be done to jar this strange boy into growing up. He finally resorts to the seemingly only course – he boots him out. What happens next in this tender tragic-comic father and son narrative is unforgettable.
–Robert Price, Chairman of the Department of English at Western College. Mr. Price is a specialist in American literature.
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New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 31 December 1961 – Paul’s Tale II
Raymond DeCapite has once again chosen to write about an Italian-American family in Ohio, as he did in his charming first book, “The Coming of Fabrizze.” “A Lost King,” however, is a highly personal story of Paul Christopher, a boy unable to adjust to the pressures of modern living, whose relationship with a sick, embittered father are endangered by this failure.
Although told with a vivid gaiety, it is, incongruously, a sad novel. Paul’s mother died when he was young, and undoubtedly her death warped his father’s life. Paul was accustomed to having his mother come to him in the night when he coughed, and rubbing his chest. After her death he went on coughing as if that would bring her back. His sister Nina rubbed his chest, but it was not the same. Finally his father said: “I just made a rule against coughing in the house at night. I’m sick of it, and so I made a rule against it.” My father was worse than medicine,” Paul comments.
His father blasted with fury and sarcasm young Nina’s attempts to take over her mother’s duties. So when she met a charming young insurance salesman she was only too willing to marry him and leave her angry home. Paul and his father lived alone afterwards, in a disorder which Paul accepted cheerfully and which his father seemed to ignore. By the time his father became crippled by arthritis and bursitis, and was forced to stop work, Paul had graduated from high school. He took various jobs in his desperate attempts to win the old man’s affection. Each job terminated with some terrible disaster. Each failure aggravated his father still further though Paul tried frantically to appease him with cakes, wine, a song on the harmonica, or perversely by teasing him. Finally their relationship reached a climax which revealed father and son to each other with a bitter-sweet finality.
Raymond DeCapite has a delightful and distinctive style, and it would be wrong to compare him with other genre writers such as Saroyan or Papashvily, simply because he writes about an immigrant family. His greatest quality is his ability to achieve tenderness without sentimentality. He tells a story in which the characters strive to communicate and cannot: yet they are not dull incoherent people, they are frequently extremely funny–sardonically and exasperatingly so, for behind their wit is the ache of unexpressed love.
New York Times, 29 October 1961 – The Watermelon Wagon
Writing, by its very nature, is a sophisticated act. The writer, therefore, who deliberately cultivates the artless and the naïve skirts the danger of a specious primitivism, a fraudulent purity of feeling. We have seen William Saroyan, with his backyard pastorals, flash brilliantly for a while and then molder neglected. His sense of wonder had long since become cloying; his freshness had staled.
In “A Lost King,” by Raymond DeCapite, there is an engaging immersion in a Saroyanesque world. The old simplicities of feeling, the insistent sentimentalities have an authority one would think had long vanished. Mr. DeCapite’s characters are full of whimsy and vagrant impulse, and of that startling departure from common sense which—at least in this kind of novel—is often itself loftier common sense.
Carl Christopher is a powerful beached whale of a man. In his happier days, he had been a crane operator in a Cleveland steel mill. Now his work gloves lay, “like smashed swollen hands,” and he sits on his porch wondering where it all started and where it would all end. Passionately vituperative, he upbraids his complaisant daughter for her domestic insufficiencies (“You couldn’t hold a dog in the house with this food: he’d rip your apron off”), and his son Paul for his dreamy, ne’er-do-well ways. (“This boy plays the harmonica and forgets where his shoes are.”)
It is Paul who provides the moral center of the novel. He is a kind of inept Huckleberry Finn whose misadventures in love and work are at once comic and moving. In an ambiance of small catastrophe, he moves from one job to another—meat slicer in a super market, loader of potashy gags, machine tender in a factory. After each failure, he ritualistically buys heaps of food for this father and cheerfully returns to his true spiritual home, atop the watermelon wagon with an old neighborhood friend. This is a life he understands.
“Everyone was delighted to see us and it seemed a perfectly wonderful way to make a living. All that day we were out in the fresh air and sunlight. Round us was the sweetness of watermelon like cut grass. Deep in the gold of the afternoon, we sold out and I lay back in the wagon to watch the sky and listen to the quickening clip-clop of the horse Tina.”
Old Carl Christopher, to be sure, is as much a misfit as harmonica playing Paul. A crusty old tyrant with a kind of exasperated tenderness for his son, he spouts the American gospel of success, but he is desolate with the thought of his own fading powers. (“It’s like a knife in my heart when I remember how strong I used to be.”) After a party in honor of his sixtieth birthday, he quietly dies.
In its limpid currents of feeling, “A Lost King” has a faintly archaic flavor. Yet it is as persuasively charming novel. Paul has a gentle and generous lyricism. “Something good is happening,” he cries out. “I feel it in the air. Do you realize a baby’s being born every five seconds or so?” Moreover, there are howlingly funny moments in this novel: the chief butcher in the super market shouting at the apprentices “Attack, attack,” as they wield their flashing knives; or Paul protesting when his father complains that his girlfriend is bow-legged. “I know, I know, I wanted a bow-legged girl.”
“A Lost King” resolves no existential dilemmas, but it is a warm and winning novel which says “yes” to life. It should give delight to many readers.
The Saturday Review of Literature, 30 September 1961 – Hearts & Harmonics
In the exact center of Raymond DeCapite’s second book, absorbing and giving back all its light, stand the figures of a father and his son: the one a raging old Italian-American, lonely, dying, and disappointed that his son should choose playing the harmonica and selling watermelons from a horse-drawn wagon to striving mightily to succeed by the standards of the community; the other an idiot of God, who would rather make melodies and cut open the great fruit than make a million, though for his father’s sake he does strive, with desperate futility, in some wonderfully funny episodes that reveal (to my mind conclusively) that playing the harmonica and selling watermelons have much more to recommend them as a way of life than one would at first suspect. And that in a sense–a misleading one–is all there is to the book; to make a fine and not merely a slight and funny book of such material required all the considerable craft and cunning its author was able to command.
That DeCapite’s book is less a novel than a series of illuminated panels–of scenes created more by a tone of voice and the mannered and eccentric style in which it is wrought than by action–not only does not detract from the book’s merit but is its essence, its conscious method. For DeCapite has written a ballad, more lyric than dramatic, an incantation, a celebration of the human heart; it is precisely the gift its protagonist–the saintly fool who is absurdly inept at everything save what is essential–means when he says, “I thought of my father lying in the wet black earth of that cemetery. Last of all I knew that I must make a song for him. And for my mother and my brother. And for everyone else, too.” The gift offer in return for the great gift he has been given, the incomparable one of feeling, in fact, feeling made into art.
Only, I suppose, in what might be called ethnic fiction–that fiction that discovers its scene in America’s last remaining community, the incompletely assimilated urban ghetto, in this instance an Italian, Greek, and Polish neighborhood in one of Cleveland’s mill districts–only in such fiction as this is it still possible for a son to love his father and a girl too, to love his dead, scarcely remembered mother, and the Greek who runs the coffee-and-poker shop up the street; only here it is possible for feeling of the most exuberant and inexhaustible kind to spill over, to exist fully in its own right, needing neither nagging analysis nor apologies nor justification. Feeling exists here, merely exists, as though it were privileged to do so, as though it were what is distinctly human.
All this is most unfashionable, hopelessly innocent, an embarrassment, a little crazy really, and willfully outside the several converging mainstreams of American fiction, where the characteristic subject is the problematic nature of feeling itself, its anguishing difficulty and predestined failure. Yet DeCapite has incautiously, recklessly managed with vitality and joy to make of what might so easily have been sheer bathos an evocative and oddly moving song.Next Page »« Previous Page