In a small city north of Boston in the late ’60s, a boy expands his horizons even as he discovers the enduring strength of “loyalty to a neighborhood and affection for a family—those twin steel bonds of the working class”—in Merullo’s elegiac fourth novel, a companion to Revere Beach Boulevard (1998).
Anthony Benedetto looks back on his youth in Revere, Massachusetts, from the vantage of middle age in rural Vermont, where he is a modestly successful portrait painter. Tonio is only 11 when his parents die in a plane crash; he’s raised by his gentle, reflective grandfather and strong, serene grandmother, who temper his early introduction to life’s existential uncertainty with their personal examples of loving devotion to duty, work, and kin. His anxious, edgy uncle Peter, a Golden Gloves boxer who retreated back to the neighborhood after losing a crucial bout, reminds him how confining their world can be. Peter’s daughter Rosalie is Tonio’s close friend, but she pushes him away in adolescence, when Tonio’s good grades and hockey skills take him to Exeter while Rosalie remains in the tough local high school, running around with its meanest creep. Tonio feels comfortable enough among Exeter’s privileged students, though he and his African-American roommate are drawn especially close by their ambiguous relationship with the less fortunate folks back home now that they’ve “gone off and joined the oppressor.” Despite a suicide attempt, a lingering death, and references to several future bad ends, the narrator’s tone is rueful and meditative rather than anguished. Most writers begin with their coming-of-agers, but Merullo was wise to wait. His artistic maturity gives us a tale of sentiment without sentimentality as he conveys the inevitability of loss and the divisions of class with sadness but not bitterness.
Emotionally complex, politically intelligent, beautifully written: Among the best from a novelist in the classic American tradition.