[Editor’s Note: The following essay appears as the introduction to Kent State Univeristy Press’s new edition of Raymond DeCapite’s A Lost King.]
An Italian-American in Cleveland, Ohio who writes about work and neighborhoods—not exactly a resume for literary fame in 1961, when Raymond DeCapite’s A Lost King first appeared. But this long out-of-print novel deserves attention for exactly those reasons: DeCapite’s ethnicity, regionalism, and time. Beyond those local and temporal concerns, though, DeCapite demands respect for one thing most of all: his brilliant artistry, a command of language that is playful yet profound. His uncommon prose lifts his narrative above multicultural matters; it soars on a music all its own with a poetic style that’s as accessible and clear as a familiar ballad. The lyrical riffs transform a seemingly familiar plot—the struggle between an old school father and his carefree son—into a unique domestic drama, but not one mired in angst and alienation (those staples of post-war American fiction).
A Lost King (1961), like DeCapite’s previous novel, The Coming of Fabrizze (1960), received glowing reviews when first published. Critics for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times (among others) praised his “evocative and oddly moving song.” One reviewer considered it a “winning novel which says ‘yes’ to life.” In DeCapite’s corner were writers such as Mark Van Doren, Gene Fowler, and John Fante. So what happened? Why didn’t the novels become better known? Aside from the vicissitudes of the publishing world, it helps to remember the prevailing literary wisdom of DeCapite’s time. Saul Maloff, in The Saturday Review, got close to the heart of the matter in his appreciation of DeCapite’s unusual achievement: “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.” DeCapite “incautiously” and “recklessly” swims against the tide.
Book reviewers, however, are just the first stage in literary immortality; academic critics, beholden to loftier notions of what makes a great novel, write literary history. And DeCapite’s modest little fiction falls outside their narrative. He’s clearly not in pursuit of the Great American Novel, the goal that defined the ambitions of most aspiring writers when A Lost King was published. His characters do not dwell in suburbia, the land of consumer abundance and lonely crowds. He doesn’t advertise himself in his prose. Unlike Norman Mailer or J. D. Salinger—to take just two of those anointed by academic critics—DeCapite indeed says “yes” to life. Only in the context of the post-war obsession with outer “phoniness” (vide Salinger) and inner turmoil does such a proclamation seem perverse.
In those go-go years, the lure of the road appealed not just to hipsters like Jack Kerouac. Businessmen and workers went where the jobs were, breaking ties with family and community. And here is a writer who not only stays put in the unfashionable city of Cleveland, Ohio, but celebrates it. This is a far cry from the earlier view of that other Ohioan Sherwood Anderson—or Hart Crane, for that matter—who couldn’t get out of the supposedly stultifying hinterland soon enough.
Throughout all of DeCapite’s work runs a love of his native city; his fiction abounds in local detail. In his later novellas, Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro and The Stretch Run, the decision to stay in or leave Cleveland is central to the larger narrative. As one character puts it in Go Very : “I’ve seen the freeway. No waiting there, not even for love. Obliterate the past. Obliterate the present. Drive on to death.” This sense of Cleveland changing for the worse pervades A Lost King as well. The neighborhood where Paul and his father live—in a house that’s literally sinking!—grows dark and gloomy, disappearing under the industrial dirt and the drive towards the suburbs. DeCapite’s implicit argument for staying where you come from complements his respect for the past with a near Faulkner-like sense of how it shapes the present.
Paul Christopher, the insouciant narrator of A Lost King, loves his neighborhood, his job selling watermelons off the back of a truck, a local girl named Peggy, hot cherry peppers, and most of all his cantankerous father, Carl. A lover, a localist, and a layabout, Paul is also a uniquely American character. Actually, a very Italian-American character created by a very Italian-American writer. Without making too much of it, it’s worth noting that DeCapite’s ethnicity may have something to do with his literary neglect. In this respect, my mentioning John Fante above as an early champion of DeCapite’s work will strike some as ironic since Fante himself was virtually unknown at the time he praised his literary paisan. Fante’s regional tales of second-generation Italian-Americans found few readers in the Fifties and Sixties. Not until the wildly popular Charles Bukowski suggested his rediscovery later on did Fante become a familiar name.
If you doubt that the literary culture provided little space for Italian-Americans, consider the case of one of DeCapite’s and Fante’s contemporaries—the immensely popular Salvatore Lombino. Most of us have read one or two his novels, which circulate in the millions. You may know him, however, as Evan Hunter or Ed McBain, two of his many pseudonyms, all of which were imposed on him by publishers who insisted that his birth name—which he used for a number of stories in the pulps—would discourage book buyers. Students of ethnic fiction might counter with the earlier example of Pietro Di Donato, whose proletarian masterpiece, Christ in Concrete (1939) was widely praised and featured by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Di Donato, like DeCapite, writes about work. But his working-class ethos and aesthetic are a far cry from DeCapite’s later, more ambiguous views.
Di Donato’s gritty narrative continues the ongoing real-life story of first-generation Italian laborers in America. It’s a tale that goes back to such nonfiction works as the definitive Son of Italy (1924), Pascal D’Angelo’s tragic autobiography of his life working on road and rail crews. Long before his personal transformation into a poet, D’Angelo describes the brutal realities of work for Italian immigrants:
That was our work; handling and carrying wet ties on our shoulders, now and then stumbling on the rough ground of the unlit yard, and cursing just to appease our pains—with the heavy ties and rails on our shoulders and the slippery ice under our feet. That was our work. All around was noise and confusion; trains piling on trains—cars creeping smoothly at you in the darkness, bells toots. While I was there two men were caught under a freight car, several were smothered under coal in the coal dumps, one suffocated in the steam house. It was a war . . . .
Di Donato, for his part, takes the story into the literary realm, albeit one clearly in tune with the politically minded critics of his time. His gloomy, unrelenting bleak account of exploited construction workers appealed to the twin ideals of left-wing reviewers: marxism and modernism. A skilled and sensual writer, he elevates work into the mythic, always-capitalized, “Job.” In one crucial scene, when management-mandated shortcuts in construction lead to a building’s collapse, Di Donato waxes poetic: “With the speed of light, balance went sickeningly awry and frozen men went flying explosively. Job tore down upon them madly. Walls, floors, beams became whirling, solid, splintering waves crashing with detonations that ground man and material in bonds of death.” With no disrespect to Di Donato’s brilliant achievement, this token work of Italian-American fiction clearly satisfied the prevailing critical notions of its time.
DeCapite’s A Lost King represents an entirely different stage in the ethnic and literary story of work. While America moved into the era of organized labor and job safety, few writers dwelt among the hard-working lower-middle class. More importantly, they seldom found anything there worth exalting in fiction. DeCapite is a magnificent exception, which is funny because his narrator avoids work at all costs. At the same time, Paul Christopher knows perfection when he sees it. Though he can’t butcher meat—one of his many failed jobs—without making a mess of things, he marvels at the master butcher, admiring his blade work as “a kind of secret menacing dance like a swordsman.” It’s a magical display, at once “remarkable” and completely beyond Paul’s ability. Later in the novel, a former co-worker of Paul’s retired and miserable father praises the old man’s past skills: “I think he was the best damn crane operator they ever had. He could lay that bucket down on a handful of ore. I saw him work sixteen-hour turns and he used to sing and shout up there all the time. . . .your father was like a tiger up there.” Paul, more lamb than tiger, nevertheless tries his hand at a number of jobs, from hauling sacks of potash to feeding cardboard to a box-making machine. Minutes after a landing work at a steel mill, he runs from the plant in horror at the heat and noise.
Paul fancies himself a breed apart—he’s content to play his harmonica and sell melons, both of which drive his complaining father to distraction. Their relationship is at the heart of DeCapite’s inspired fiction. Despite its regional color and ethnic garb, their tale is transcendent: a father hopes for a better life for his son. Paul subverts his father’s will at every stage. Not only does he hate to work, he derives a perverse pleasure from teasing the grouchy old man—”I wanted to tease him just to hear his quick sour laughter.” Their banter suggests the best reason for celebrating this long-neglected novel. The fluid dialogue—a back and forth as dizzying as it is artful—builds from the most ordinary of language. A typical scene early in the book pits father and son. Paul, who cooks for them, loads the meal with peppers and hot sauce. Sweat begins to pour from them both; they argue.
“This food’s too hot,” I said. “I finish eating here and it’s like a hot coal inside me all night.”
“A hot coal is what you need inside you. It’s what’s missing.”
“But I can’t even taste the pork chop.”
“Don’t eat then.”
“But I’m the one who cooked it. Don’t you know you wake me every night with your cries? We’ll all be ashes inside.”
“Then it’s ashes in and out.”
This strange provocation by Paul ends with him picking up his harmonica, and his father asking, “Can you really make music out of this misery?” Of course, he can, as does DeCapite. That’s what this novel achieves at its best—a rapturous combination of hard-earned wisdom and musical wit.
DeCapite surrounds Paul with conventional versions of the American dream; his father works his way up from the coal mines to a fine union job; his beloved Peggy leaves him for Edmund Hatcher, their ambitious former classmate; and his sister, Nina, elopes with insurance salesman Andy Bobbio, who fully embodies the optimism of postwar prosperity. Paul wants none of it, causing Carl to wail: “Why did I work all these years? So you could sell watermelons from a wagon? Is that it? Wake up! You live in a country where you can be anything you want and look what you’re doing!” He considers his son a throwback to old world values. “The next thing you know you’ll be sailing back to the old country to herd sheep.” And, later, there is the suggestion that Paul resembles his sheep-herding uncle back in Italy. But his father doesn’t seem to understand the full meaning of his own words. You can be anything in America, and what Paul wants to be is what he is: not a worker drone, but a celebrant of life. Where others happily put their histories behind them in pursuit of their ambitious dreams, Paul refuses to forget the past. With his immediate family dead or gone, he must “make a song” for them all, “and for everyone else, too.” In the face of death, and with his dead-end job, Paul sings of a different life, a uniquely American life. His joy and sense of wonder, expressed in music, speak to “everyone else,” and that includes us, DeCapite’s newfound readers.