SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
27 June 1999

Through the Windshield review
by Barbara Schultz

Ah, romantic Cleveland, Ohio: the dead-end factory jobs, the cruel weather and two-bit hustlers.

Yet in Michael DeCapite's novel Through the Windshield, there's beauty in the city's shadows. The characters are gamblers, hookers, blue-collar prisoners and aimless kids, but somehow their lives are as funny and innocent as they are bleak.

It all filters through the eyes of the narrator, a young cabby named Danny. In the world of the novel, Danny sees more than anyone else, and nothing like anyone else.

Windshield's structure is slightly unconventional. Brief, ravishing prose poems are woven into the narrative, often connected, as are the moods of the characters, to the season: ''Driving through the iron landscape of early Winter, early December: black and white and monochrome: dust of snow on slanted tar roofs, wide plains of iron, gone numb under a hard low sky...'' Spring is lighter: ''I was riding that taxi hard on the night through the tender corridors of May with the windows down and the lilac blowing in: I saw some girls walking in the easy final grace of spring and threw an astral lasso around 'em...''

Most of the narration, though, happens in conversations between Danny and his friend Ed, a truck driver who lives next door. Danny often becomes a straight man, prompting Ed's hilarious and pathetic accounts of his family and associates.

One of the most memorable is Ed's half-uncle, Honest John, a dimwit in his 40s who lives with his mother and asks Ed to place bets for him because he can't find a bookie who will take his money. John's constant companion is a six-inch plastic hippo named Mike, who makes unreasonable demands and attacks insects and small animals. Ed depends on John, though, because he's double-gambling with John's money, using it instead to bet on his own hunches.

Random characters also crop up, such as the guy at the racetrack who inexplicably shouts ''MAC'' every 15 seconds. Ed can't help making the acquaintance of someone with such a strange affliction. He also meets people through poker games, purchased sex and prank phone calls.

One of the reasons Ed's stories are so great is DeCapite's gift for dialogue. Conversations here are full of partial words and creative punctuation that artfully capture the pattern of the characters' speech. The reader can hear every intonation, see every look. Here Ed and Danny are looking through some of Ed's old photographs:

''What's this?''

''That's me in the service of my country.''

''?''

''I was a Ballistic Meteor Crewman; that was my title.''

''Yeah?''

''I blew up balloons.''

''(laughter)''

''It was very specialized and high-polished -- ''

Ed is always entertaining, but Danny remains lonely. He misses his ex, and he's tempted by another woman who's pretty well out of his reach. He doesn't know how to fill his days.

In Ed's world, Danny is surrounded by examples of what a man can become if he's got no ambition: a lifelong small-time gambler, living from dollar to dime with no hope of change.

For example, Jimmy D: ''His face when he takes off his shades is like a small full moon seen through a passing cloud. He has the wide glazed look of a man who's been watching baseball bets go out the window since the days of Ty Cobb...of a man who thought he'd seen every way a horserace can be lost.''

Danny has so much affection for these frail souls, though, that he's drawn to them, almost wants to be like them. We wince as Danny loses his taxi job, coasts on Visa and friends for a while, then starts working nights as a spot-laborer. Eventually, he realizes what's missing and spells it out in a letter to his friend Duke. ''I think I wanna write a novel. I've never felt that being was enough. As though if no one's watching, it ain't real.''

So we readers are Danny's witnesses, and this book is as real as could be: full of original, indelible characters whose lives blow with the wind and can change any minute.

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