North of Boston, up against the Atlantic, Revere, Massachusetts, covers just six square miles, but it occupies a huge area in the terrain of the imagination of Roland Merullo ’75, ’76 AM. Following an earlier novel, Revere Beach Boulevard, and a memoir, Revere Beach Elegy, Merullo’s latest book, In Revere, in Those Days, is a lyrical, quietly compelling coming-of-age novel that moves with the hopscotch grace of a fine memoir.
It’s the story of Anthony Benedetto, now a portrait painter ensconced in the hills of central Vermont, who after the birth of his daughter looks back at his own childhood in Revere in the late 1960s. This is the Revere where Merullo grew up, a town known for working-class neighborhoods with yards you could cross in six steps and Coney Island–like attractions along the arc of Revere Beach. On payday in Revere you could take a dollar, have a conversation at the butcher shop with Zingy, and play your number, hoping to take home a little something extra.
At eleven years old, Tonio is a smart kid growing up in the rich web of an extended Italian-American family. He’s a lucky kid, too, because the net surrounding him holds even after his parents are killed in a plane crash. Tonio still has his steady grandmother; his meditative and inventive Grandpa Dom; his gregarious Uncle Peter, a former Golden Gloves near-champion; and his beautiful, if troubled, cousin Rosalie. With his hockey skills, Tonio wins a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy and slowly edges his way into a wider world. By the novel’s end he receives a thick envelope in the mail with the news that he’s been accepted at Brown.
On one level this is a story about class and the tensions of leaving a known world for another, but it’s also about the loss of a certain close-knit universe. Here is Tonio describing a raucous New Year’s party, where the extended family—second cousins, old neighbors, and the family dentist included—has gathered at his Uncle Peter’s house: “We were the Benedettos, after all and by the simple force of our love for one another we were going to fashion something out of the mud and stone of our fate.”
The tricky thing about writing a novel as if it were a memoir is that the two forms often run on very different narrative engines. And readers expecting a big, page-turning plot may be disappointed. Still, the short chapters in this book are full of sharply rendered scenes that resonate as they accumulate. For instance, there’s the night after his parents’ death when Tonio wakes up on the sofa bed in his grandparents’ parlor. He goes to the kitchen and finds his grandmother at the table holding a prayer book while the moths dive loudly into the screens. Without a word she cooks him eggs and toast, a surprising but completely ordinary gesture. “And for a few flickering seconds I thought I did understand it,” Tonio says. “Even to the deepest grief and pain there is a thin lining of disbelief, as if death and suffering are mostly, but not completely, real.”
In moments like this, Merullo’s work seems to cross over into the nuanced territory staked out by authors like Richard Russo or Richard Ford or even William Kennedy, with his string of Albany novels. There’s a lot to be said for a writer who knows his neighborhood and knows how to work it.
Edward Hardy is a visiting lecturer in Brown’s expository writing program and author of the novel Geyser Life.