Sparkle Street Press

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 Michael DeCapite’s renditions of rollicking riffs from his unpublished novel Through The Windshield highlighted many a poetry reading on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and south side of Cleveland in the late 1980s.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.

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