With his latest novel, Roland Merullo revisits the Revere (a blue-collar town in Massachusetts) of his earlier books, a community he has grown adept at painting. In Revere, In Those Days is a novel that often reads like a memoir. Set in the Revere of the ‘60’s, it is narrated through the eyes of Anthony Benedetto, now an artist living in Vermont.
At the tender age of 11, “Tonio” loses his parents in a cruel airplane crash and for a while, it seems, the bottom drops out. However, soon he is for all purposes adopted by his huge Italian-American family, watched over by his grandparents and an ex-boxer uncle, Uncle Peter. Together they all manage to raise Tonio out of his grief even to a point where his life feels ordinary again.
Inevitably, Anthony moves up and out, graduates high school from Phillips Exeter Academy (in New Hampshire) and attends college at Brown.
Merullo’s novel might be loosely classified as a “coming-of-age” novel. There are certain predictable parts of the book (Tonio loses his virginity to an older woman) that would point to the same. Yet Merullo’s novel is so much more than a simple coming-of-age book. Merullo paints characters who simply walk off the page. Tonio’s wonderful grandfather, Dom Benedetto, introduces his crushed grandson to hockey by saying this is “the idea for you.” Later, Tonio admits “hockey had replaced a broken beam inside of me, given me a way to live with myself.” Tonio’s Uncle Peter, a down-and-out ex-boxer with an endless affection for his nephew, is a gem of a character. Even Tonio’s cousin Rosalie, with her street-smart attitude, is absorbing to watch.
Many of the Italian-American mores covered here are expected: the code of silence, the instinctive empathy for other people’s pain and embarrassment, even the kitchen gardens watched over by ceramic saints and the profusion of crosses in every home. Despite these intricate pictures, Merullo’s characterisations are never cloying or cliched. “I don’t much appreciate the fact that, to this day, the Italian-American way of life has been reduced to a television cliché," Tonio complains, “thugs with pinkie rings slurping spaghetti and talking tough. My story has nothing to do with that cliché. Almost nothing.”
The slight distraction sometimes is the confusion about whether this is truly a novel or a memoir. The fact that, like his protagonist, Merullo himself graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and Brown University doesn’t help. If this were a memoir, I would have rooted for Tonio much more. The novel format sometimes makes one view the characters with a slight sense of detachment.
On the whole though, In Revere, In Those Days is a good absorbing read. If you are looking for a novel that ably demonstrates the power of hope, this is just “the idea for you.”