Sparkle Street Press

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.

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