In the Gutter, Face-Up

Grime pays for up-and-coming novelist Michael DeCapite

Mar 8, 2000 at 4:00 am
There is something going on in the recently published novel Through the Windshield by Michael DeCapite. This something is a vital feature that you will find curiously absent from most works of fiction. To put it one way, this something is the feeling you get when you are by yourself on the street -- or, better, in a park or field -- at 2 a.m. and there is no sound but the wind. Imagination carries you away and you feel a communion with mysterious forces, or maybe you feel a great need within you puncturing the surface of the workaday world.

To put it another way, this something is passion. There is no mistaking it -- it is here, and it is strong enough that the absence of a strictly constructed plot does not diminish the power of the novel. The passion that vibrates through the book, along with the memorable characters drawn within, makes this young author's debut a promise of even better things to come.

The story concerns Danny, a 20-something cab driver living on the cheap on Cleveland's south side. He seems a bit too young or too smart to inhabit this zone of liquor, gambling, prostitutes and various down-and-out characters who firmly believe that life's glass is half-empty. But he seems to thrive on the authenticity of the people and sights of this low-budget 'hood. Danny, who is really DeCapite in this roman è clef, is trying to figure out what's worthwhile and letting his moods take him as far as they will. In between chapters about his adventures with his hilarious neighbor Ed and tales both amusing and depressing from his job, DeCapite has written what have been called prose poems. For example:

"Half a bottle of velvet red and the rain hits the puddles like the sound spring creepers make. The Buick reels and swerves of its own accord.... The day was absence itself. The sky got dark with cloud and then dark with night and the streets bristled with moisture as I watched from the high clear window of a friend, and then drove home. And now I'm back in the room."

Danny first attempts to reconcile his romantic ideals with a confusing world, and then, after wrecking his taxicab, must contend with scrounging up enough dough to make rent as well. Through it all he commiserates with his neighbor Ed, who is, as they say, a character. Ed meets women by calling them at random, pretending to be a woman and coaxing them into confessional woman-to-woman discussions. He then approaches with amorous intentions, already knowing what they really want. Ed and Danny bet the little cash they've got on hand on sports or horses or something nearly every day. Often they visit the dwarf bookie Feef, who also runs the corner store. Ed is forever getting himself into situations that wind up as great stories, such as his argument with a store clerk on his liquor-delivery route or his goading of a mentally challenged man who can't stop shouting the same word at the racetrack.

Ed tries to get together with a schizophrenic young prostitute named Angie, which makes for some sad and very sharp humor. At one point Angie says to Ed and Danny:

"Yesterday I was hitchhiking and this man picked me up and said he'd give me fifty dollars for a blowjob and he told me to get out of the car and wait for him while he went to get the fifty dollars. I waited for two hours. I hope I see him today because I need the money."

Danny is Michael DeCapite. DeCapite really drove a cab and worked in a porn shop on the scuzzy side of the tracks in Cleveland, just like in the book. (The author says the porn emporium is "a monument to tragedy and lack of imagination. A porno store's relation to sex is about the same thing as McDonald's relation to food.") There is really an Ed who is as zany as they come, and, believe it or not, really a nutty John, a man who has conversations with his best friend, a little plastic hippo named Mike. Write what you know, the sages of literature say, and DeCapite did. There is plenty of fiction on the pages of Through the Windshield, the author insists, but the most valuable stuff is the nonfiction of a human author trying to obey the holy nighttime urges to freedom, and the existential desire that fights with reality on every page.

DeCapite thrives on neighborhoods with a certain rundown authenticity. Currently living in San Francisco, the author says he "doesn't like it at all ... it's a vacuum to me ... New York and LA are raw material; there's all these strange juxtapositions. Reality is so strange there. San Francisco is more like a picture, a composed thing -- it doesn't need you; it's like a tourist town, an artifact."

At the book's conclusion, Danny heeds the call of the wild and takes his moody self away from Cleveland. In reality, this is DeCapite moving to London to be with a woman. At first, he had the same problem with his surroundings there: "I was continually dissatisfied in London because there wasn't some fuckin' banged-up Catalina at the curb and you couldn't just go get a shitty 7-Eleven coffee; it had to be a cappuccino. London is not like Cleveland, and Cleveland was all I knew, so I really was hyperaware of all the beat-up things that I loved about America."

London, you're no Cleveland.

Through the Windshield is picaresque, personal and ultrarealistic poetry in prose's clothes. It's real good.

Michael DeCapite will read from Through the Windshield at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid. Call 367-6731 for more information.