In Revere, In Those Days
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
NY: Shaye Areheart Books/ Harmony Books
Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski(Zaire 197374; Ethiopia, 197475)
IM FOREVER TELLING MY STUDENTS that a great story is good at the sentence level. Roland Merullo proves it. My name is Anthony Benedetto, and I live what might be called a secret life. Now theres an opening sentence to kill for. Its a mysterious sentence, too, because Anthony reveals much to the reader, even though he likes to think of himself as secretive. I often feel the visible part of me is a plain wrapper that hides a gem . . . . This is a rescue of one soul. Its the story of an ordinary kid who had all the shell burned off him, all the armor. Anthony already knows the cost of living, because he loses his parents at an early age. Uncle Peter becomes the relative that no kid, certainly not Anthony, can resist. Peter is a boxer who had worked his way up through the Golden Gloves finals, far up into the heavyweight ranks, only to be beaten senseless in his twenty-eighth professional fight. Peter is Anthonys hero, one who guards this nucleus of unwavering affection.
I could write a love song for Merullos sentences. Nearly every paragraph has a zinger or two. When young Anthony lets himself cry over his parents death, his grandmother quietly cooks up eggs as if she knew exactly what was needed: It seemed to me on that night that she had taken my thoughts as if they were fingers, and was weaving them along the fabric of that lining, letting me feel the weave of it. I love the moment that follows, the boy imitating his uncles, covering his face with his hands . . .[later] rising from sleep, his head so close to the plate that the next morning there was dried egg yolk in my hair, and she saw it and took me to the sink to wash it out. They are dazzling, this family, in their spoken and unspoken connectedness. Uncle Peter worries that this breath and pulse of companionship might suddenly expire, that the family might expire before his eyes.
Besides the beauty of language in this book, theres a great power of characterization: the grandmother, the grandfather, and especially Uncle Peter and Anthony are strongly drawn. But its Rosalie, Uncle Peters daughter, who has my heart. Rosalie whos French-kissing at 11, and has the misfortune to fall for a fiendish boyfriend, Cesar. Cesar Baskine was the last boy her father would have wanted to be allowed to place his tongue in Rosalies mouth. The only clue to Rosalies vulnerability in such a strong extended family is her mother, erratic, unfaithful, and self-absorbed. For years Rosalie circled her, a hungry dog circling a piece of meat roasting in the flames. Zing.
Merullo helps us love not only families and their sorrows, he makes us love religion again if weve lost a bit of our enthusiasm. Saint Anthonys Church is a museum that holds the solids, vapors and liquids that make up human existence: the joy of birth and the sudden mysterious disappearance that is death, the wailing of babies, the shrieks and laughter of young children, the love of God and the terrors of hell as described to us by pale nuns in spectacles, the confusion of a Catholic boys sexual awakening.
Merullo makes us love family, neighborhood, and ethnicity again in a way we might have forgotten. He reminds us of the distance we sometimes have to go to save one another. As Anthony tells us, Uncle Peter had a wife whod cheated on him, a daughter with rope burns on her neck. If only Anthony and his uncle could get Cesar out of the picture, so Rosalie can blossom into the woman she was meant to be. One part of growing up for Anthony is recognizing that neither he nor the strong Benedetto family can save everyone.
This is a delicious book, but Ill still raise a few questions. Is it necessary for Anthony to be a painter we dont need that information, and it seems forced. It is Anthonys noble voice that we love. A bigger question: why the affair with the older woman? Does it add to an already overflowing book of experiences, love, death, danger? The reader will decide. I suspect that what the reader really wants is to enjoy this beautiful book, the complicated and loving family, and especially the wonderful characters: Anthony, Peter, the grandparents, and Rosalie.
Thank you, Roland Merullo, for these words spun out in glorious fashion.
Margaret Szumowski teaches at Springfield Technical Community College. She is working on a new poetry manuscript, Night of the Lunar Eclipse.