Through the Windshield
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., Nov. 19, 1999
Through the Windshieldby Michael DeCapite
Sparkle Street Books, 457 pp., $14.95 (paper)
One of the better American novels published in the past several years, Through the Windshield is an autobiographical work dealing with the life of author DeCapite in the mid-1980s, when he drove a cab and worked as a day laborer. He lived in the Tremont section of Cleveland, although he doesn't call it that. The culture of the poor and working-class people of Tremont and adjacent parts of Cleveland's near West Side is among DeCapite's major focuses. His closest friend then was next door neighbor Ed, who drove trucks making beer, wine, and soft drink deliveries. Ed's a bright, street-smart guy in his late 30s who's a sort of mentor to DeCapite, then around 23. Ed's got a fine sense of humor and does a lot of gambling. When he loses his truck-driving gig he turns to living by his wits, which involves even more gambling. Through him, the author, here named Danny, broadens his knowledge of Cleveland's low-life scene, becoming acquainted with hookers, drug addicts, gamblers, and bookies.
Danny isn't just slumming, though. He's living in Tremont because he doesn't have much money and hasn't figured out what his vocation is. He accepts the lifestyle of his neighbors to some extent and gets involved with them on a non-condescending basis. DeCapite takes his characters at face value and doesn't ridicule them ô la Damon Runyon, although his book contains plenty of humor. Particularly poignant is his portrayal of Angie, a young, mentally disturbed prostitute with whom Ed becomes involved.
DeCapite writes poetically and impressionistically, sometimes isolating a relatively brief poem on one page with a lot of white space around it. The book opens this way: "Driving through the iron landscape of early Winter, early December: black and white and monochrome: dust of snow on slanted roofs, wide plains of iron, gone numb under a hard low sky, driving blank, gone frozen coasting the lines of longing, slowly scattering all invisible ghosts -- even that of loneliness which usually follows all around and as a good friend --"
That's the Cleveland I know and love. The winters pound you till you're numb, there's gray, dirty water in the gutter, slush on the sidewalk, and a slicing, cold wind coming off Lake Erie. And it's only the middle of December -- three and a half, four months of this to go. You forget what summer is. Wake up at five thirty in the morning and go to work in the dark, all hunched over and tight inside. DeCapite's aware of that, and also of summer nights when people sit on their porches and bullshit while fireflies blink on and off, and of vacant lots where wildflowers grow among the leftover bricks of a demolished building.