'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Globe, March 3, 2002

Goodbye Revere, hello Buddhism

A Memoir of Home and Beyond
Roland Merullo
Beacon Press
216 pp. $24

ssentially a story of a religious conversion, Roland Merullo's "Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond" tells a tale of two Merullos. The first is a lively young Italian American from Revere, who starts each chapter by offering us charming memories from his event-filled early adulthood. The second is a middle-aged Buddhist, who interrupts to offer an occasional comment ("The reason behind our pain lies at the very heart of the puzzle that is human existence"), then gradually takes over the narrative, chapter by chapter, drowning it in a sea of Buddhist tranquillity.

At times the memoir achieves a lyrical eloquence, but often Merullo relies on looping phrases and repetitions to get a rhythm going ("I wasn't that humble, that good"), and frequently repeats what he's already repeated ("they stood silently, dumbly, like animals"). When good writers do this it usually means they're writing on the wrong subject, and so it seems with Merullo. He wants to show us how "the apparent coincidences of human life are continually nudging the individual forward, into the territory of a new grammar, a larger and larger us." But whatever nudging is going on seems incidental to the younger Merullo's Icarus-like efforts of escape. "Ten Ways to Leave Revere" would have worked better as a title, which of course takes us far from any notion of elegy but only begins to suggest the cross-purposes at work here.

The opening chapter, "What a Father Leaves," escapes this fate somewhat by focusing on Merullo's father, whose story gives us a fascinating piece of Boston's political and social history. Looking for work in 1954, Roland Merullo Sr. knocks on the door of the Volpe Construction Co. in Malden. John Volpe (not yet governor of Massachusetts) reroutes Merullo to the campaign headquarters of gubernatorial candidate Christian Herter, who promptly wins the election and appoints Merullo to be his personal secretary, eventually supplying the gregarious young man with enough plums of political patronage to feed all his friends and family back in Revere. What makes the father rise off the page, unlike the other characters here, are the sharp edges of his determined, private, contradictory personality.

Merullo's love for his father makes this the best chapter in the memoir, but in a coming-of-age story, parents are allowed only one role - as an obstacle to their child's destiny. What else can give the child - and the story - the necessary liftoff into the larger world? The problem with "Revere Beach Elegy" is that Merullo has turned into his father. He has reached that dread moment in life that every parent since Adam and Eve warns their children of - "Someday you'll understand!" At 47, Merullo understands his father too well. It's his younger self that he's somewhat distant from, so his coming-of-age story takes us far from the comic rage and energy of a "Portnoy's Complaint" and uncomfortably close to an Italian "Fiddler on the Roof," with the generations all in agreement.

As Merullo makes his way into the world - high school at the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, a brief stint in Micronesia with the Peace Corps ("I chased [a rat] one night, knocked him out cold with my spear"), a cultural exchange mission to Siberia sponsored by the US State Department, finally back to Boston to drive a cab - what seems to drive him is a missionary impulse to do good. Modest, thoughtful, never a harsh word for anyone (except Boston drivers, described as "felonious"), the young Merullo is a lesson to us all. Each episode falls into a familiar pattern of crisis and transcendence, inevitably triggered by an encounter with someone less fortunate than himself. "We were able to scrape away the surface differences and make some basic human-to-human connection." "I had scraped one layer of comfort from my life; in some way, partially, imperfectly, I had grown a more sensitive soul."

As if this isn't enough, Merullo wants his readers to be good too. To that end he covers our ears during the few moments of conflict, reporting them after the crisis has passed, and only briefly. His gospel of good news reaches a delightful extreme when he writes, "In the USSR I came face-to-face with thieves, torturers, professional liars and legbreakers, the worst kind of cowardice and deceit," while our chaperoned visit is limited to a perfectly ordinary friendship with a pair named Tanya and Tolya, who provide the necessary epiphany.

Despite constant reports of scraping and growing, Merullo himself seems remarkably unchanged from chapter to chapter. But even the most becalmed sea will eventually suffer a tempest of some sort, and Merullo's duly arrives in Italy, when he comes face to face with the sort of goodness that he has long aspired to but never attained. "In the Presence of Goodness" tells a lovely story of a monthlong vacation when Merullo, now a husband and father, travels with his wife and baby daughter to Rome. Turning up in a small town without a reservation, in search of his grandmother's birth site, the family is taken in by a kindly Italian woman named Gilda, whose home serves as an improvised refuge for abandoned children. His time with Gilda and the children allows Merullo to see, "suddenly, a completely different standard by which to measure myself. . . . I felt myself to be in the presence of a deeper, truer goodness, and felt the little welter of shame it raises. . . ."

The stage is set for an emotional breakthrough. On his return home he is vaguely depressed. Too old to join the Peace Corps, or enlist in a mission to Russia, he simply climbs into his car and drives north. With a twinge of self-consciousness, he comments, "I do not believe I am alone in saying this: For many of us, within the symphony of communal life, there is a note of solitude or wildness that must be struck from time to time in order for a certain harmony to be maintained. This note may be as mundane as an hour alone gardening or woodworking, or as daring as a sail across the Atlantic. Or, between those extremes, a solitary drive north into the Canadian forests."

Nothing happens, of course, except the single thing that most needed to happen. "You're a good man," a stranger says to him after a game of golf. Merullo, who in addition to three novels has also written "Passion for Golf: In Pursuit of the Innermost Game," doesn't share any of the details of the afternoon's conversation, but his previous nine chapters give us an idea of what has prompted the benediction. What matters is that it breaks the spell, lifts the curse, so that the Merullo we meet in the last chapter, "How a Soul is Fashioned," is someone we haven't met before. No longer is he trying to change the rich wine of his memories into a thin chicken soup for our simple souls. His writing has lost its throat-clearing hesitations. He is speaking from a secure, contented present, no longer attempting an elegy to a complex, contradictory past. What he says is both surprising and, for the first time, convincing.

"My religion, I suppose, the belief system I've made for myself to render the events of my life meaningful, is this: in a mysterious fashion not completely understandable to us, everything moves the individual soul toward humility."

This is someone to enjoy a round of golf with, to buy a beer for while trading stories of family and friends and, perhaps, the meaning of it all. But tell Merullo that you'll find your own way to the golf course.