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  • In Revere, In Those Days
  • Written by Roland Merullo
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  • Written by Roland Merullo
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In Revere, In Those Days

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Written by Roland MerulloAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Roland Merullo

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42634-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this richly evocative novel--the moving story of one boy's coming of age--acclaimed author Roland Merullo will make you nostalgic for a small Massachusetts city called Revere even if you've never been there. Providing a window into an unspoiled America of forty years ago, In Revere welcomes you to the fiercely loyal and devoted Italian-American family of the Benedettos.

Although he was orphaned as a child, young Anthony Benedetto was always surrounded by family, and the vibrant warmth of the Revere community. His Uncle Peter, a former Golden Gloves boxer whose days of glory were behind him, believed Tonio was bound for great things. So did his daughter Rosie, Tonio's favorite cousin, who would take many wrong turns--away from Tonio--through adolescence. His gentle grandparents, who took him in, encouraged him to claim a future outside of Revere, but the warm, unconditional love of his family, and the smells and sounds of Revere stay with him forever.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

The story does not take place here in Vermont, but in a small city called Revere, Massachusetts, which lies against the coastline just north of Boston. Three miles by two miles, with a salt marsh along its northern edge and low hills rising like welts in an irregular pattern across its middle, Revere must seem to the outside eye like an uninspiring place. The houses stand very close to each other and close to the street -- plain, wood-frame houses with chain-link fences or low brick walls surrounding front yards you can walk across in six steps. These days the city has a crowded, urban feeling to it: sirens in the air, lines of automobiles and trucks at the stoplights and intersections, thin streams of weeds in the tar gutters.

But forty years ago, Revere was a different place. There were amusements and food stands along its curve of sandy beach, making it a sort of slightly less famous Coney Island. And there were still some open lots pocking the narrow streets, blushes of wildness on the tame city skin. Not far from where I lived, a mile west of the beach, was a large tract of undeveloped land we called "the Farms," though nothing had been cultivated there since before the Korean War. For my friends and me, for city kids like us, the Farms was a landscape from a childhood fable: pastures, boulders, half-acre ponds, fallow fields where we turned over stones and planks and pieces of corrugated metal and reached down quick and sure as hunters to take hold of dozing snakes -- brown, green, black. The snakes would slither and writhe along our bare wrists, and snap their toothless gums against the sides of our fingers, and end up imprisoned in mayonnaise jars with holes banged into the metal tops. We carried them home like bounty from a war with the wilderness, and sold them to younger boys for ten or fifteen cents apiece.

The automobile had not yet quite been elevated to the position of worship it now holds. The streets were freer and quieter. Hidden behind the shingled, painted houses were backyards in the European style, with vegetable gardens given preference over lawns, with fruit trees and grape arbors, and ceramic saints standing watch over a few square feet of flower bed.

Revere is a thoroughly modern place now, a corner of blue-collar America with chain stores and strip malls and yellow buses lined up in front of flat-roofed schools. A hundred new homes have been squeezed onto the Farms, streets cut there, sewer and electric lines brought in. But in some way I have never really understood, the city had a mysterious quality to it in those days, as if it lay outside time, beyond the range of vision of the contemporary American eye. Provincial is a word you might have used to describe it. But provincial means that a community believes itself to be living at the center of the universe, that it refuses to make an idol of the metropolis. Revere was provincial then, in that way. And, I suppose, proud of it.

Even in the days when Jupiter Street was quiet enough for nine uninterrupted innings of a local game called blockball, even then there was an underside to the life we believed we were living. The collection of bad characters known as the underworld, or the mafia, or the mob, had a number of nests in Revere. These people, in my experience, in the experience of almost everyone in the city, had little in common with the fantasy underworld you see these days on movie and television screens. For most of us, the face of the mafia was found in nothing more terrifying than a coterie of local bookmakers' neighbors, family friends, the guy beside you in the pew at nine o'clock Mass -- men who made their living from the yearning of their neighbors toward some higher, softer life. In this way perhaps they were not so different from modern-day suburban portfolio managers.

The people in our neighborhood did not have executive jobs, did not commute into the city in suits and nice dresses, reading neatly folded copies of the Wall Street Journal, did not have parents and grandparents who had gone to college, and, with one or two exceptions, did not go to college themselves. They rode the subway into offices and warehouses in Boston, or drove their five-year-old Chevies to the factories in Lynn -- where my father worked, in fact -- and spent their lives in bland cubicles or hot, loud workrooms, performing the same few tasks again and again as their youth dribbled away. On Fridays they took a dollar from their pay envelope, walked down to the butcher shop on Park Avenue, and had a quiet conversation there with a man we called "Zingy." Zingy would take the money, record the lucky number -- a wife's birthday, a father's license plate -- then sell his loyal customer half a pound of mortadella and a package of Lucky Strikes. And the workingman would go home to his cluttered life in his drafty house and fall asleep clutching a tendril of a dream that he might "hit," that "the number" would come in for him and his family that one time, and then all the world's harsher edges would be rubbed smooth.

Of course, in Revere and elsewhere, one of the things that has changed in the last forty years is that the government has taken over Zingy's job. Now people walk down to a corner store and print out their lucky number on a blue-edged lottery form, and carry away the receipt (something that, after certain highly publicized arrests, Zingy stopped offering). But they go to sleep holding tight to the same dream. Only now, a portion of the profits goes to the state, to be spent by bureaucrats and politicians, whereas in earlier times the money went from the bookies upward -- or, more accurately, downward”to a handful of violent, sly men in smoky private clubs, to be spent on jewelry for their girlfriends and vacations in Las Vegas.

The bookmakers were the mob's menial laborers, though, and didn't have exotic girlfriends or take exotic trips. Without exception, the ones I knew were affable, modest men who had stumbled into their profession by accident, or taken it up as a second job, the way someone else might put in a few hours delivering lost airport luggage or standing the night watch at an office building. But they were part of the fabric of Revere, too.

Occasionally, the uglier side of that fabric was turned to the light. In the 1960s there was a turf war going on in Greater Boston among different factions of the underworld -- the Irish, the Jews, the various bands of Italians. This was closer to the movie version, to that brutal, hateful way of life modern moviegoers seem so attracted to -- as if it isn't quite real and could never affect them. We would be listening to the news in our kitchen at breakfast and hear that a body had been found in a nearby city, or in Revere, a mile or two miles away: in the trunk of a car, on a street corner, behind a liquor store. Shot once in the back of the head, never any witnesses. Whenever these reports were broadcast, my mother would turn the radio off. I remember her bare freckled arm reaching up to the windowsill and twisting the nickel-sized black dial on the transistor radio, as though she might keep that aspect of Revere from my father and me, and maybe from herself as well. As if protecting us from life's unpleasant truths was as simple as slicing away the mealy sections of an overripe cantaloupe and bringing to the table only the juicy golden heart of it. "That's not Revere," she would say. As if she were insisting, That is not cantaloupe; that part we scrape into the metal bowl and carry out to the garbage pail.

I understand why she did that. Like most of the people in Revere, she and my father went about their lives in a straightforward, honest fashion, and didn't much appreciate the fact that the Boston newspapers and TV stations gave so much attention to the mafia, and so little to the ordinary heroism of the household, the factory, and the street. I've inherited some of my parents' attitudes. I don't much appreciate the fact that, to this day, the Italian-American way of life has been reduced to a television cliché: thugs with pinkie rings slurping spaghetti and talking tough. My story has nothing to do with that cliché. Almost nothing.

But the mob was a part of Revere in those days; it's pointless to deny that. The Martoglios shouting at each other at the top of Hancock Street when I delivered the Revere Journal on Wednesday afternoons was part of Revere. The dog track, the horse track, the hard guys and losers in the bars behind the beach, the crooked deals worked out near City Hall, the lusts, hatreds, feuds, petty boasts -- it was all as much a part of that place as the neighbor who shoveled away the snow the city plow had left at the bottom of your driveway on the night of a storm, when you were off visiting your mother or sister or friend in the hospital; or the happy shouts of young families on the amusement rides; or my grandparents neighbor Rafaelo Losco, who once, in the middle of a conversation with my mother, when I was five or six years old, broke from his cherry tree a yard-long branch heavy with ripe fruit, and handed it across the back fence to me.

Though I sometimes want to, I cannot paint a place, or a family, or a life -- my place, my family, my life -- in the pretty hues of cheap jewelry. I can't give only one-half of the truth here, because what I want to say to my daughter is not: Life is a sweet cantaloupe, honey; smile and be glad, eat. But: Life can be bitter and unfair and mean, and most people rise part of the way above that, and some people transcend it completely and have enough strength left over to reach out a hand to someone else, light to light, goodness to good, and I grew up among people like that -- not in sentimental novels or on the movie screen, but in fact. They were imperfect people, who struggled to see the decency and hope in each other, and if I can be like them, even partly like them, I will, and so should you. A road across the territory between too extremes, a middle way -- that's what I want to offer her. Between denial on the one hand and despair on the other, between sappiness and cynicism. A plain road, across good land.


From the Hardcover edition.
Roland Merullo

About Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo - In Revere, In Those Days

Photo © Amanda S. Merullo

Roland Merullo is the author of the Revere Beach trilogy, A Little Love Story, Golfing with God, and Breakfast with Buddha. A graduate of Brown University, he lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children.
Praise

Praise

"The details are just right, and the result is a portrait of a time and a place and a state of mind that has few equals." —Boston Globe

"A poignant look at a life with roots, and how sometimes you have to leave those roots. . . . Merullo has created characters that seem almost too real to be imagined. . . . The telling of their stories is as fresh and real as people from your own childhood.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Merullo has a knack for rendering emotional complexities, paradoxes or impasses in a mere turn of the phrase.” —Chicago Tribune

“What makes In Revere, In Those Days stand out from most other contemporary novels is its graceful prose, its deep and decent characters, and its quiet insistence upon the fundamental dignity of humanity.” —Seattle Times

“In his willowy-tough style, Merullo creates characters as familiar as the man at the corner store, as breathtaking as a winner at the track.” —Boston Magazine

"[This] novel is so true that it has the authenticity of a memoir. It will, I think, be compared—and favorably—to A Separate Peace…. I can't remember the last time I was moved to tears by a novel in the way that I was, at several junctures, with In Revere, In Those Days. It is an extraordinary achievement." —Anita Shreve, author of The Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water

"Beautiful and shapely.…The rhythm of the chapters beguile.…The sacrament of Italian American family lives in the heart of the words, displayed with perfect clarity and utter humanity.…A pleasure to read, and to read again." —Booklist (starred review)

"A beautiful story--told with the compelling voice of a writer who is willing to approach the enormous question of redemption, and does so with truthfulness and striking decency." —Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

"Emotionally complex, politically intelligent, beautifully written: Among the best from a novelist in the classic American tradition." —Kirkus (starred review)

"The gifted Merullo tells Anthony's bittersweet coming-of-age story with crafty narrative and a beautifully vivid depiction of the time and place.…Highly recommended." —Library Journal (starred review)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A poignant look at a life with roots. . . . Merullo has created characters . . . as fresh and real as people from your own childhood.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

The following introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of In Revere, In Those Days and help provide a framework for a provocative discussion.

About the Guide

Roland Merullo’s powerful novel eloquently explores how, in the aftermath of a devastating tragedy, a young boy, already disadvantaged by place and circumstance, can grow into a happy, successful man. Narrated by the protagonist, Anthony Benedetto, In Revere, In Those Days is not just Anthony’s intensely personal memoir of his coming-of-age but also a larger portrait of a changing America.

Born in Revere, Massachusetts in the 1950s, Anthony, or “Tonio,” as he is known to his family and friends, is a member of one of the many tightly-knit Italian-American immigrant families on the block struggling to get by. His father works in a factory making airplane parts and his mother is a former nurse who wants Tonio to have a better life than Revere can provide. At age eleven, it seems as though Tonio, a good student and a good Catholic boy, may be able to realize his parents’ hopes for him. But Tonio’s life takes an abrupt turn when his parents are tragically killed in an airplane crash. Sustained and borne up by the unwavering love and devotion of his paternal grandparents, his Uncle Peter, and the rest of his large family, Tonio slowly but surely discovers a way out of sorrow and, ultimately, a way out of Revere.

In Revere, In Those Days is a heartfelt story of deep and abiding family love, of personal loss, and of individual redemption. The passage of time and Tonio’s geographical distance from Revere lends an objectivity to his narrative, but his love for his family and his unapologetic pride in their traditional first-generation Italian-American values shines through each word. And yet, it is this very way of life that Tonio must leave behind in order to find happiness. Tonio’s life will be forever changed by the early loss of his parents, but his story is tinged with an even greater sense of a lost way of life: the sacrifice Americans make to achieve the American dream.

About the Author

Roland Merullo is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Brown University. He has written for Newsweek, Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications. He is the author of four previous, highly praised novels, including Revere Beach Boulevard, which was a finalist for the L.L.Winship/PEN New England Award. He lives with his wife and two children in western Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

1. How did Tonio’s mother and father show their love for their son? How did Tonio’s grandmother express her love, and how does he distinguish her love from that of the other members of his family: his grandfather, his uncle, and his aunt?

2. Tonio uses the term “provincial” to describe the Revere of his youth [p. 6]. Is this description applicable to the modern Revere? How has Revere changed since Tonio’s youth, and how are these changes representative of a changing America?

3. In many ways, Tonio’s story is the story of Uncle Peter. What portrait of the ex-boxer emerges from the novel? Is Uncle Peter a hero or a failure? How does Tonio support his assertion that Uncle Peter is “short on logic, long on heart” [p. 83]?

4. In an effort to make sense of his Uncle Peter’s appearance and lifestyle, Tonio postulates that Uncle Peter wanted the “world [to] see us as we saw each other—as dazzling souls” [p. 45]. What does Tonio mean? How does Tonio’s explanation simultaneously uphold and break down the Italian immigrant stereotype?

5. With respect to the mob’s place in Italian-American culture, Tonio writes: “I don’t much appreciate the fact that, to this day, the Italian-American way of life has been reduced to a television cliché: thugs with pinkie rings slurping spaghetti and talking tough. My story has nothing to do with that cliché. Almost nothing” [p. 8]. How does the existence of the mob lurk between the lines of Tonio’s story and how did it affect his life, directly or indirectly? What is Uncle Peter’s relationship with the mob? How does it affect Tonio’s feelings about Uncle Peter? The reader’s feelings about Uncle Peter?

6. Tonio says, “Coincidence, fate, karma, luck, the mood swings of a merciful God—it fascinates me now to listen to the ways we explain life to ourselves and each other” [p. 17]. Which of these terms would Tonio use to explain life? What about Grandpa Dom? Uncle Peter? Rosalie?

7. Tonio alludes to Grandpa Dom’s “idea” for him [p. 81] before he actually reveals it later [p. 97]. Where else does Merullo use this technique of foreshadowing and is it effective in propelling the story along? Why else might Merullo have chosen to employ this technique?

8. What “truth” does Tonio’s grandmother know, and does he ever approach possessing knowledge of this “truth” [p. 62]?

9. How does Tonio’s life story echo Grandpa Dom’s story about his sister Eleonora that he relays to Tonio on the beach [pp. 66-76]? How does Grandpa Dom’s story help explain Tonio’s motive in writing his memoir?

10. What motivates Rosalie to imitate Tonio’s late parents at the New Year’s party [p. 94]?

11. What holds the Benedetto family together? Is it the mere fact that they are blood relations or is it the consequence of the actions of certain family members [p. 86]? What does Uncle Peter mean when he tells Tonio that “the whole family’s gonna change” when Grandpa Dom passes away [p. 260]?

12. Tonio states: “Now, in middle age, the pendulum has swung back. I find myself drawn to old friends in Revere and tugged away from some of the people I know in the wider world” [p. 157]. Why might Tonio feel this way? How did Tonio’s experiences at Exeter affect his relationship with and connection to his family? Having achieved success, what might the adult Tonio be looking for in Revere, and is whatever he is looking for still there?

13. Tonio implicitly measures his life against Rosalie’s life [p. 102], but Grandpa Dom, even as he is dying, says to Tonio: “Your cousin has her own life. . . . A separate life from you” [p. 263]. How does Tonio try to make sense of Rosalie’s life through the psychology of “self-hatred” [pp. 105, 227]? If Tonio’s life is compared to Rosalie’s, must the reader conclude that one can control his own destiny? Does Tonio’s family succeed with Tonio but apparently fail with Rosalie?

14. The narration alternates between the point of view of a young, more naïve, Tonio—who often possesses only partial knowledge of the facts (such as the child who discovers his Aunt Ulla cheating on Uncle Peter [pp. 118-9])—and that of the adult Tonio looking back on his childhood with more complete knowledge of the facts. How reliable is Tonio as a narrator throughout the novel, and how does his reliability affect the reader? How else might Tonio’s narrative voice be described? What balance does the narrator strike between nostalgia and factual analysis?

15. How is the process of grief, mourning and recovery different for a child than for the adults in the story, such as Uncle Peter or Lydia? Why does Tonio feel in the days after he received the scholarship from Exeter that “in some way I could not fathom, my parents’ death had begun to hurt me more instead of less, as if, as my body changed, the sadness had spawned offspring in my cells—an ancestry of absence, a genealogy of grief” [pp. 150-1]? How do Tonio and Lydia each find solace in solitude [p. 230]? What does Lydia teach Tonio about himself and grief that his family cannot?

16. Tonio expresses fond memories for Saint Anthony’s Church, the Catholic church of his youth [p. 123], but what are his actual religious beliefs? Does he believe in a God? Tonio describes the connection he had with Lydia as follows: “An appreciation for the magnitude of absence. The absence of a person you loved, the absence of a Creator’s mercy” [p. 245]. What does this observation reveal about Tonio’s religious convictions?

17. At his grandfather’s funeral, watching mobster Angelo Pestudo make his condolences, Tonio writes, “I made a little vow to myself, as to how I would try to live. . . . I made myself a little promise” [p. 276]. What is the promise Tonio made to himself? Did he keep it?

Suggested Readings

Richard Ford, Independence Day; Alice McDermott, Charming Billy; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Debra J. Dickerson, An American Story; Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street and Caramelo; Philip Roth, American Pastoral; Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier; Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief; Rick Bragg, Ava’s Man; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican.

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