Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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A Review of Radiant Fog
DeCapite, author of Creamsicle Blue, is back, flâneur on the beat, singing the praises of walking cities, contributing to the grand tradition of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, to name just two sprawling and throbbing and essential works devoted to the linked act of strolling and seeing, to peripatetic revelation. Here’s how DeCapite puts it: “I got out, I walk around. It’s good to go out for no reason, not carrying anything, walking slowly, not thinking, just trying to see. You only get something from a walk if you’re not going somewhere.” He’s a witness to the weather—“the night sky doesn’t look substantial enough to bear snow”—the music of urban-space-as-organism—“A cab rolls up, window down. Cicada sound of its receipt dispenser.”—the city’s garlands and accidental embellishments—“bits of magnetic tape are strung in bare branches. Birds? / On blue pigeon-spattered wooden steps, a shard of mirror, a hairbrush, a lipstick pencil.” When he’s interrupted, it’s only in the way one tarot card interrupts the last, laying down a read. A junkie cadges a buck—“She moves as though she’s hung from a hook, and when she catches up I can smell her. She flakes some tears and says she got ripped off for five dollars. On Twenty-Second Street a young tree is bent with its load of white blossoms.”—or he swings by a branch library—“I’ve been reading Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne. I went to the library, where I took out books on Cézanne and also Alfred Korzybski, the pioneer of general semantics, whom Burroughs talks about.”—witnesses the economy of Chinatown in full sprawl, watches a sanitation company van pump out a public toilet. Mirrors become windows, windows become mirrors: “My advice? As you walk along, pay attention not to the surfaces you pass but to what’s reflected on them. It opens another dimension, opens your heads, reminds you that reality is a cutup.” Elsewhere he wonders “Why’s everything more interesting in a mirror—even the room you’re in? Because it has a frame around it? The blue glare of a cell phone, a black door marked PRIVATE, Bettie Page in black-&-white on TV spanking women, their scissoring ankles, Bettie Page spanking and spanking, and the sudden roar of conversations...” He washes up in a bar. He thinks in terms of painterly perspective. He quotes Cezanne, or a New Yorker piece on Joseph Cornell. He catalogs his possessions, describes cleaning his room. He stumbles in and out of the implied narratives of other people’s lives. He contemplates himself:
I’m aging and absurd, disgusted with myself but a little delusional, too. We see ourselves in terms of potential and other see us as we are. Purple towel on the doorknob. I want to talk with a woman in the dark about nothing. Loneliness is not about what you can’t get but about what you can’t give.
He despairs, masking a moan as objective fact:
You have only your broken life to rely on. No extraordinary hopes, no extraphysical warmth, only your life as it is, half drunk in a Friday dusk.
Then satori, or something like it, happens, the flip side of the same feeling:
A mist comes down to street level. Haloes are coming, with cruciform glare. A pair of basketball shoes hangs from a wire. The hour should be blue it’s only deeper grey.... You find yourself back in your life for a moment. Once again, it’s right where you are.
This is triumphant stuff, in a chapbook that is, on one level, so slight: it’s an exercise, as his preface makes clear, most of the pieces here were originally written as columns for Cleveland’s angle magazine, “to get myself in shape for a novel I had to revise” and because “I was so far down at the bottom of my life I didn’t think I could write anymore.”
The flâneur self-medicates: strolling is therapy, emersion in the urban scene, as revitalizing as any Lazarus Pit. This is a book that, despite its size, crackles and throbs. This is a reminder of what art is all about, the visceral and the intellectual—the thrill of theory (the flâneur, of course, theorizes as he goes, as he ponders produce for sale or snippets of overheard drama) and the scintillation of a challenge (how to frame a scene, what words to use to render down experience) and the ache and rush and drop and sometimes drone of human feeling (Cézanne here offers a ready example: it’s not enough to see, to represent what one sees, one must also feel and somehow set and convey that feeling). DeCapite’s workout is obviously and explicitly one for us to follow (“My advice,” he says; this whole book being a how-to as well as a testimonial, process in action, in outline, discussed, and handed down). This is a book that will prompt you to head out and take a walk through your city and a book, one better, that will help you see and feel that city in a new way. The flâneur seeks out the unexpected, taps, through the simple tactic of the seemingly pointless stroll, into the city’s vast sea of images and stories and sorrows and joys. And a flâneur like DeCapite, or like Aragon, like Benjamin, comes back and catalogs, records and frames. For the flâneur, the city is a co-author. And as DeCapite reminds us here: the city’s got plenty to say.
A Review of Through the Windshield
This slab of a book—a reprinting of a raw, meandering, mixed-form novel first published in 1998—moans out rust belt blues to the rhythm of “driving somewhere not particular,” a melding of sharp tastes (a shot of Kessler, a shot of Ancient Age, plenty of garlic, rye bread, pasta with Romano) and impressionistic dictations (the concrete particulars of those places passed through with no particular place in mind) with fragmentary, rough-stitched meditations on self (à la Celine, and Celine’s American and Americanizing apprentice, bop-mystic Kerouac) and a related relay of routines and dialogue both comedic and banal (the absurdity of words in the world and that such exchanges represent one limit of our world). What strikes me about this book is that it is the result of discipline that looks like lack of discipline—the thing sprawls, bulky, crammed with what feels, as one reads, like surplus, the absence of an editor manifest in an extra few hundred pages. But this, I wager, is intentional, the practice of construction an anti-novel, a plot-less but nonetheless triple-decker, sauce-slathered Dagwood of a novel, to read in part like a novelist’s notebooks, straight, with all that immediacy untouched. The result is wild in the sense of not pruned, not manicured. But DeCapite doesn’t want to give us the filtered and framed and photoshopped, he wants to give us life itself, and this is his tactic to get that on the page:
I got a job in a porno store the other day—Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Somehow it feels like a step up. I’m gonna keep at the factory thing weekday nights. I’ll have to spend some more time as a ghost. I need time, I need money, and I need to get out, and all these things have their price. 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 what is real for DeCapite? Garlic, frying, or the meal the narrator has at his parents’ place, detailed here not merely with relish for the lived experience but also as a kind of artistic challenge, tossing down a gauntlet after giving words to the spread:
We had a shot and a beer. There was roundsteak fried in olive oil with garlic and onions. Greenbeans with oil, oregano and lemon. Rye bread. A salad of escarole and dandelion greens. Coffee. Cantaloupe. As though anything not expressed in the simplicity of that meal was better left unsaid.
Likewise, rolling commentary on milieu, in the form of observation, expansive yet selective all the same. Here’s one real piece of Cleveland, a place where
if you put a refrigerator door out with the trash on the treelawn it’s bound to get dragged away scraping up the middle of the street by a guy with a quart of Cold 45 jammed into his back pocket and a taped-up axe-handle tucked under his arm, and the little grocery’ll give you cash for your food stamps at three-quarters the face value . . . and the favorite form of currency besides what the government prints is empty pop bottles and the favorite drugs besides what the government taxes are glue and tulio stolen from the paint factor down the hill . . . and most of the bathtubs have legs and most of the floors are covered with four layers of linoleum in floral patterns different from room to room, and the gas station does a lot of business without selling much gas, and the payphone on the corner is always in use until it gets ripped out once a month, and the bus stop on the other corner gets the glass busted out of it at slightly less regular intervals....
We go outside, bounce in, the public, the intimate, survival and threat, getting by and a idle rage: a cosmos, some might say, bowled out across two pages. I put in my own ellipses out of interest of space and time: DeCapite does not share that concern, or wants us to think he doesn’t, that he’s all in, taking up as much space as the world takes up, making a map that matches the territory, from residential neighborhoods “Polish and Slovenian, Appalachian: hidden streets of small frame houses dirtied by winter” to the churches that, come Saturday, do Vegas Night, complete with “Pierogi and some kind of jacked-up roulette wheel.”
Then there’s the self, the authorial voice, feeling at times like “an ape in a cage with changeable bars: as big and beautiful as any other ape out in the brush, in the trees—but stuck in this stinking jail, waiting to be set free.” And what’s the way out? An audience, for starters, even if only implied. Which means putting fresh terms to the given, metamorphosis, poetry: how winter can go from the same old gray to new turns of phrase: “envelope days of February” and streets can howl and even the rhythm of the names of losing horses deserve to be recited aloud as incantation (Residue of Dreams, Blow for Blow) and sometimes the stream of consciousness, like a heavy jet of piss, must be blasted against the immovable brick walls of consciousness’s limits. I mean, words get used as weapons here, to chip away at the confinement of the self in a day-to-day world. You got your shots of whiskey and your daydreams as you drive and some time alone with other men to talk rough over cards and smokes, but really you’re still that ape in the cage and your best shot is to chip away with the smallest thing you’ve got, forcing the words to keep coming even when they deteriorate on the page to lowercase unpunctuated drivel. This isn’t drivel, DeCapite wants us to note: it’s blood: “but i can’t laugh at every joke or go along with all these two-bit emotional expenditures i come up with for myself; i’m tired of getting carried away, or pretending to get carried away.”
The self gets carried away in dialogue, too, or, maybe better put, the self recedes, even more so than in the impressionist glances recorded through windshields: in the routines recorded here—usually between the two main characters, the narrator and his buddy—DeCapite takes us even further into pure plays of language, ideas unhitching from their supposed signifiers, rap sessions running amok, though often with an undercurrent of deeper relation to the matter at hand. This is what apes sound like when they pass time in their cage, talking about other things but all the while circling back to those bars: “Why are you outside—at quarter to six on a Monday morning, drinking a Pabst—on the corner of Thirteenth and Chester? . . . Where you been—How did you get to peeling a banana at twenty after eight on East Ninth and Euclid? I mean—What brought you to this point?” A topic builds momentum by being goaded on by jokes, at which point the speaker can voice real existential concerns, vulnerability masked or denied or talked of directly but with such a grin it doesn’t hurt, as when the narrator’s buddy talks about calling into party lines pretending to be a woman, gaining in that way intimate glimpses into the lives of strangers: “And—After you do this for a while you realize how fucked up the world is: not just you.” Dialogue paraphrased can have the same effect, as when our narrator, reflecting on an encounter with a prostitute, gives witness to her world in order to talk around his own:
Afterward she asked my name and I told her, and she said hers was Kim, and asked me what I was doing out here paying for sex, so I asked her what she was doing out here selling it, and she said she had a Demerol or Dilaudid habit that took whatever she made in a night, and her boyfriend just got sent to Mansfield, and she had more of an answer than I did.
I don’t want to suggest that reflections on food and drink, impressions of place, meditations on self, and tragic-comic banter are the only approaches employed in this block of a book, but I do want to say that these themes—laid out in novelistic passages but also in fragments, in rambles and supposed notebook selections, prose poems, comedy routines, scrawls—aren’t here by accident but by strenuous intent, that the degree to which Through the Windshield feels formless is precisely this novel’s design. In a reflection, pushing page 400, on factory work, the narrator states a kind of mantra as “Don’t think, keep working, be automatic.” DeCapite, it seems to me, has dragged this approach from the work floor to the writing table, and he wants us to feel the weight of that dragging, hear the scrape, experience this book as real and written in a real—one might say a workerly—manner...wants you to feel the time and sweat and sleeplessness and pain and desire and carbs and money and hope and loss and muscle sunk into this thing. I would suggest, having mentioned, at the start, Americanizations of Celine, this might represent another such mode: blue collar Celine with multiple jobs at awkward shifts, most comfortable when away from home and moving, watching the world in the rain and realizing that most everyone else has a better answer and that being just ain’t enough.
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