RAY DECAPITE (1924-2009)
by Thomas Baughman
One of my favorite authors is Cleveland novelist Ray DeCapite, a writer who devoted his entire life to writing fiction that took place on the very streets where he was born and raised. More specifically, his work chronicled life among Cleveland’s ethnic working class.
In 1960, DeCapite published his first novel, The Coming of Fabrizze, a celebration of ethnic working class community set in the 1920s. Fabrizze is an almost mythical tale of an immigrant who succeeds by hard work, marries a beautiful girl, wins the admiration of the immigrant community, then fails on a large scale. Even so , it ends well with the hero retaining the love of his neighbors.
The next year, the author would publish his second novel, A Lost King, which is a small masterpiece. As writer Thomas DiPietro has written ,“this elegant little novel beautifully captures the double consciousness of American ethnicity in its tale of an emotional struggle between a son and his father.”
Carl, an immigrant crane operator who has recently retired, cannot comprehend his carefree son. Paul, the slacker son, is content to play his harmonica and sell watermelons from a cart rather than pursue success or gainful employment. The ensuing conflict in the novel is both heartbreaking and uproariously funny.
Even though both books were greeted critical acclaim, they also met with public indifference and soon went out of print. Further complications ensued when DeCapite’s editor died and his publisher went out of business. Then to top it all off, several publishers passed on the authors next novel because the hero was a garbage man.
It would be 35 years before DeCapite would publish another book. In 1996, Pat The Lion on the Head was published by University Editions. This book, a novella really, tells the story of a trash sweeper at Cleveland’s West Side Market in the in the 1950s. Christy, an aging, lonely, hard-drinking veteran, meets and finds love with a lonely widow named Jenny. Ultimately he loses Jenny and ends up alone. While the story sounds simple the book is a small miracle of precise writing and nuanced detail. Four years later, the author would publish his last book, Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro/ The Stretch Run, which would again delineate life at the bottom.
Ray DeCapite died last year at the age of 84. He left behind an unpublished manuscript entitled All Our Former Frolics.
Lest the reader find the above story depressing, there is good news. Kent State University Press has republished both The Coming of Fabrizze and A Lost King. I can only hope that a new generation of readers will read and revere these two wonderful books.
9 thoughts on “Ray DeCapite (1924-2009)”
I like this review. Maybe the magazine ought to solicit brief appreciations like this one from its writers, about neglected books and authors whom they have enjoyed.
I fully agree. Let’s do more of this.
Here is a link to reviews of STILL LIFE WITH INSECTS, a gem of a novel that is largely unknown: http://mysite.du.edu/~bkiteley/reviewsstill.htm
When I read thought forgotten or neglected novels, I thought immediately of Brian Kiteley’s book. But I no longer owned it: at some point I think I had donated it to the library for its book sale. As Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favors the prepared mind” – (I would change “chance” to “grace”, but that’s a discussion for another day) – and so I was prepared, when browsing the sale shelves at another local library, to find a paperback copy of Kiteley’s book, reissued in the Greywolf Discovery Series. Prepared …. and delighted.
John, Okla and I have been discussing that very concept for a while now. I feel it’s just as much a service to the world of literature and ideas as reviewing something new — more, even.
Thomas, I really want to read these books now. So you’ve made at least one convert.
Very Cool. I am glad that someone is interested in reading DeCapite. Furthermore, Mr. Clement, I v’e also had the idea of writing pieces about neglected books and authors for a while but no one semed interested until Okla asked me to submit something to the blog. I am gratified to know that I have at least 3 readers.
Should be “seemed. ” I ahve figure-ground problems which makes it difficult for me to read type.
Every author is, in some sense, a product of his or her time. But few authors have helped to make their time as did Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Despite that, while he is not forgotten, I suspect he is largely ignored these days. His novels are excellent, but his trilogy THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO is a masterpiece, a cry for justice that we ignore today at our own peril. Yes, the Soviet Union finally collapsed and, with it, the system of state prisons and camps. We cannot afford to forget the terrible darkness that fell ove so much of the 20th century and Solzhenitsyn’s work shines a brilliant light into one part of that darkness.
There are these working-class writers who seem to be in two groups…those who can’t wait to escape their working-class background, but are haunted by it and continue to write of it. Ex. James Wright from Martins Ferry, Ohio…He would refuse to return home, even when they named a street after him. And then there are others who live and die in that working-class world of their neighborhood….and fortunately we have some who write well of it. Raymond De Capite belongs here…as do many others. I honor his work.