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 He left behind an unpublished manuscript entitled All Our Former Frolics.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.