This is the story of the Benedetto family, hardworking Italian Americans from Revere, Massachusetts, a small city on the coastline just north of Boston. Anthony Benedetto is our narrator--introspective and colorful--a smart, good kid born in this country who is trying to figure out how to reconcile his family's rich, old-world heritage with the unstoppable freight train that is America and American culture.
What Anthony creates for us is an unspoiled America of forty years ago: the feeling of being part of an extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; the feeling of being surrounded by an intense loyalty and vibrant warmth that extend into the neighborhood and the community. Fixing place, time, and sensibilities with uncanny accuracy and grace, Anthony introduces us to unforgettable men and women who struggle toward decency and kindness, and who live out their difficult lives with an extraordinary dignity.
When Anthony's parents are tragically killed, the Benedetto family pulls him out of the swamp of despair with a desperate, old-world love. As the New World calls to him, he gradually grows up and away from Revere but finds that it is as much a part of him as his eye color and the size of his hands. His eventual realizations--that geography is destiny, that suffering is universal, and that he is able to pass on, to his own children, the priceless Benedetto inheritance of warmth and caring--form the essence of who he becomes as a man.
The Benedetto family's story, a tale of sorrow, hope, and redemption, gives us a lost America and a fading Italian American culture that lie beyond the cliches. In Revere, In Those Days is a hauntingly beautiful novel by a graceful and extremely talented writer.
When 11-year-old Anthony Benedetto's parents die in an airplane crash, he is saved by the loving presence of his extended Italian family in this gracefully written coming-of-age novel. Set in the 1960s and moving from Anthony's parents' death through his experiences at an elite prep school, the novel is structured as a memoir and reads like one: long on nostalgia, short on dramatic conflict or credibility. Anthony's transition from smart but damaged kid to successful student at Exeter is too smooth to be compellingly real. Many scenes are predictable, such as when Anthony loses his virginity to an older, caring woman, but the portraits of his relatives and the Boston suburb of Revere are palpably full of life. Anthony's courtly grandparents are painfully aware of the culture they left behind in Italy; Uncle Peter, a boxer lacking the ferocity to be a champion or mob "muscle," is richly drawn. And Anthony's cousin Rosalie is a troubled and ultimately tragic figure who deserves a book of her own. Merullo (Revere Beach Boulevard) is a talented writer with a fine, lyrical ear, and the book is rife with acute observations and powerful (if familiar) themes: loss, recovery, community. Ultimately, the narrative is limited by the elegiac tone; Merullo is content to bask in the glow of nostalgia instead of stoking his imagination into flame.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 13, 2003
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Excerpt from In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo
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.