Sparkle Street Press
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.