Sparkle Street Press

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.

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