Raymond DeCapite, Novelist, 1924–2009


The first Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature had been awarded, just the year before, to novelist Jo Sinclair, the creator of a substantial body of work. The second year, it went to a young writer who had been virtually unknown until just a couple of years before. But the glowing reception that had greeted Raymond DeCapite’s first two novels, The Coming of Fabrizze (1960) and A Lost King (1962), announced the arrival of a very extraordinary writer.

The San Francisco Chronicle pronounced Fabrizze “A rare novel”; “Exultant!” proclaimed the Kansas City Star. “[DeCapite] has written a modern folk tale . . . filled with love, laughter and the joy of life,” wrote Orville Prescott in The New York Times. The  Herald Tribune found it “beguiling.” And Mark Van Doren, the dean of American Literature, dashed off a personal note to the author that began “Thank you for Fabrizze, who filled this house last night with his soul and voice.”

Set on Cleveland’s south side during the 1920s, the novel tells the story of a young Italian immigrant who finds work as a “gandy dancer” (laborer) laying track for the Newburgh & Southshore Railroad. But the tone and extraordinary spirit of DeCapite’s book have already been set, in the opening pages, which chronicle the return of Fabrizze’s uncle, after eight years of hard, brutal work in Ohio, to his village in the Abruzzi region of southern Italy. “Sweet was the welcome for Augustine,” writes DeCapite. “His mother wept. The watchful men saved their smiles until he came to them. Women with eyes like jewels were moving in to squeeze his hand . . . . Suddenly everyone was shouting his name. Augustine would remember the sound of it ringing through the mountains of Italy.”
He had sworn to himself “to come home and tell the truth about America. And then what happened? One kiss from the village and I surrendered on the spot.” “It was said that Augustine had three varying accounts of his rise to power in America,” DeCapite tells us. “No one remarked on the fact that his hands were swollen with work.” Caught up in the dream and the yearning, young Cenino Fabrizze accompanies Augustine back to Cleveland, where the charming, exuberant lad wins the hearts and the confidence of the neighborhood—just in time for the Stockmarket Crash of 1929. Much as DeCapite’s own father had done.

In fact the story had already been told in a poignant novel titled Maria by Ray’s older brother Michael, a successful writer by then living in New York. But Ray, the little boy in Maria, was too young at the time to identify much with the struggles of their mother to raise three children in the aftermath of the debacle. He was to find his own take on the family story during a visit with Michael to their father’s village in the Abruzzi: The dreams and the energy of the young are larger than life—and infuse life itself with a passionate intensity, an aura of expectation, that are later forgotten. “You can all but smell the sausage and onion frying,” wrote the Herald Tribune’s John K. Hutchens of Fabrizze’s prose. “A bit of neighborhood gossip takes off like . . . a roman candle. A casual inquiry after a neighbor’s health glows like a lyric.”

Small wonder that several options, one of them for a musical, were taken on Fabrizze. DeCapite’s second novel, A Lost King (Mackay, 1962), inspired at least four screenplays. One of them, a very unfaithful adaptation called Harry and Son, was filmed by Paul Newman. The novel (which Newman, to his dismay, discovered only later) concerns the tension between, and love of, an Italian immigrant father and his grown day-dreamer son (the Times reviewer affectionately described him as “an inept Huckleberry Finn”). The pair embody conflicting American Dreams: the chance to work hard and make something of yourself, and the chance to follow your bliss and live free and untethered, a slave to no man.  DeCapite was again hailed as “a writer of exquisite talents” (John Fante) and A Lost King was called “a celebration of the human heart” (Saturday Review).

In the years that followed, Ray DeCapite, who still made his home in Cleveland, continued to mine the rich lessons of humanity—and vivid sense of place—he experienced growing up in what is now known (to all but lifelong residents) as Tremont. During the 30-some years he had lived with his mother and sister Marie, a Cleveland schoolteacher, in an apartment over a Greek coffee house, the area had been a lively stew of ethnic heritages that are still very much alive; of memorable characters; and world-class storytellers.  The December 1976 issue of Cleveland Magazine was given over to a complete short, but deeply affecting, new novel by DeCapite titled Pat the Lion on the Head, which was later published in book form. Excerpts from an as yet unpublished novel, All Our Former Frolics, also appeared (“The Freeway Cometh,” September 1978). 

During the late 1970s and ’80s, his good wife Sally keeping the wolf from the door with a job at the Cleveland Clinic and money was coming in from options and reprints of  parts of his first two books in a number of anthologies (most recently The Italian American Reader [HarperCollins, 2003], where he rubs shoulders with the likes of Mario Puzo, Gay Talese and Don DeLillo. DeCapite followed his love of playful, crisp dialogue into the theater, turning out four plays.  In Sparky and Company (1978), a family, gathered for some unexplained occasion, share memories of an eccentric relative they are told has died. In the process they come, belatedly, to cherish him, while the old man listens from the other room. The play won the award for “Best New Script” from the Cleveland Critics Circle and a New York production at Il Teatro Rinascimento. Three subsequent plays by DeCapite,  Things Left Standing (1980) and a double bill of two one-acts, Zinfandel and Where the Trains Go (1982), were also warmly received.

DeCapite’s gifts were still apparent in two new short novels published between one set of covers in 1996, Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro (see excerpts) and The Stretch Run (Sparkle Street Books, San Francisco). “With his brawny, playful dialogue, his sparse scenic descriptions and his brisk yet deep characterizations,” said Publishers Weekly, “DeCapite succeeds in doing what others only aim for: he has constructed a world that feels real.”

Raymond DeCapite died in 2009 at the age of 84. The following year, Black Squirrel Books, an imprint of Kent State University Press, brought out new editions of his first two novels, The Coming of Fabrizze and A Lost King, which Thomas DePietro in his foreword calls “a rapturous combination of hard-earned wisdom and musical wit.”

—Dennis Dooley

For more on the author visit sparklestreet.com/RayDecapite



Two Excerpts from  Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro:

Figaro Recalls His Moment of Glory

First in the fluorescent light I saw Figaro.

He was coming my way.

A girl with yellow hair was sitting in the booth against the back wall. There was a white marble counter with nine red stools. The light in that narrow place was like the deathlight of an explosion.

Figaro stopped within jabbing range of me. His face under white hair cut short was dark, shapeless, like a potato. A door might have been slammed on his nose. I gave him the envelope and told him Cappy [the neighborhood bookie] had sent it. He opened it. He counted the money. . . .

“I saw you fight once,” Andy said. “Right here on the hill.”

“I fought Gombola here.”

“I was in the crowd that night.”

“Gombola, Gombola,” he said, the name sweet as candy in his mouth. “Did you hear that, Rachel? The kid saw me in action.”

He feasted his eyes on me.

“There was always somebody coming to try me,” he said.

“He gave you a rough time.”

“He was from Pepper Street.”

“He took you to the river.”

He held up his left fist.

“I beat him with this,” he said. “I kept sticking it in his face, like an ice cream cone. He didn’t like the flavor, believe me.”

Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro (Sparkle Street Books, 1999)

Andy Drops In Unannounced

There was a churchbell ringing when I stepped into the dazzling light of that Sunday morning. . . . Smoke as white as cotton was billowing from a square stack in the valley. An ore carrier guided by tugs was passing under a bridge on its way down the river to the lake.

I walked across the street. The grey cat jumped off the porch and scooted into the yard. I went up three steps. The door inside the screen was open. I was just going to knock when I saw Rachel.

She was lifting a spoon.

I was looking through the living room to the dining room. She was sitting at the corner of the table. Her chair was turned my way a little. At the head of the table, with his back to me, was a man with hair cut so short it looked like fur. He was sitting as though he had just been ordered to sit up straight and pay attention.

Rachel was feeding him.

Suddenly the spoon was clanging on the floor.

Rachel was standing, gaping at me.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

Bright waves of hair fell past her shoulders.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

She was wearing a blue bathrobe.

“What is it, Rachel?”

“It’s nothing, Pa,” she said, over her shoulder.

“Who is it?” he said, turning his whole body in the chair to look our way. “Who’s out there?”. . .

I started to back away.

The porch creaked.

“Let me see!” he cried.

Her body went soft.

She flipped open the lock on the screen door.

“Come in,” she said.

I stood there.

“Come in!” she whispered, glaring, pushing the door open.

I stepped into the living room.

Her father was looking at me as though my clothes were on fire.

Go Very Highly Trippingly To and Fro (Sparkle Street Books, 1999)

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