Sparkle Street Press

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.

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