The Boston Globe, March 3, 2002
Goodbye Revere, hello Buddhism
REVERE BEACH ELEGY:
A Memoir of Home and Beyond
216 pp. $24
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
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.