KIRKUS
01 September 1995

MAKING MUSIC OUT OF MISERY
by Thomas DePietro

We are pleased to continue our series of commentaries on undeservedly neglected books. Thomas DePietro, an advisory editor to the cultural journal Italian-Americana, marks his tenth anniversary this month as a reviewer for Kirkus. --Anne Larsen

If truth be told, ethnic novels resurrected in the spirit of multicultural rediscovery seldom transcend their value as sociology or group uplift. One exception is the work of Raymond DeCapite, whose name keeps popping up on bibliographies of forgotten Italian-American fiction. After publishing two novels in the early '60s, DeCapite more or less disappeared from the literary landscape (though he still lives and writes in his native Cleveland).

His first novel, The Coming of Fabrizze (1960), is a celebration of small working-class community in Cleveland during the '20s. What distinguishes this almost mythic tale of an immigrant-who succeeds by virtue of hard work and honesty-from other diaspora narratives is not only its good-natured tone, but its poetic language. With an amazing ear for the lyrical patterns of everyday speech, DeCapite chronicles Fabrizze's eventual failure. But it's not a down-and-out denouement: His neighbors still love the man who brought them hope and joy and music.

A Lost King (1961), DeCapite's second published novel, is a small masterpiece, so unique (and quiet) in spirit and style that it's easy to see how it was lost in the literary maelstrom of the time. For one thing, this elegant little novel beautifully captures the double consciousness of American ethnicity in its tale of emotional struggle between a son and his father. The weary Old World realist, a worker retired from a Cleveland factory, cannot fathom his carefree boy. A New World dreamer, young Paul lost two thousand years of world history (as he puts it) while mooning over robust Peggy Haley in class. But he doesn't get the girl. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, she can't figure out this almost moronically happy slacker. Paul fails miserably at all the success-track jobs he pursues, while he finds total contentment playing his harmonica ("making music out of misery") and selling watermelons from a truck. As the fires from the steel mill light the skies, Paul trades barbs with his grumpy, nihilistic father. The writing is expert; it's hard to think of any other novel that describes butchering meat as a poetic dance. But such are the unexpected-and remarkable-pleasures to be found in the long-out-of-print work of Raymond DeCapite.

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