'Revere Beach Elegy' -- leaping the class divide

January 20, 2002|By Helene Stapinski | By Helene Stapinski,Special to the Sun

Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond, by Roland Merullo. Beacon Press. 214 pages. $24.

Anyone who's grown up working class and escaped the neighborhood to the wider world has something crucial in common: Old friends don't understand your new vocabulary, but new friends don't get where you're coming from.

Roland Merullo was once a happy working-class kid from Revere Beach, Mass., a small Italian-American community five miles from Boston. Life consisted of stickball and visits to the amusement park and big family dinners on Sundays.

But while Merullo was still a boy, a casual acquaintance of the family told his mother that he was too smart to be enrolled in his local public school. That comment, he writes, turned his mother and father into "a sort of parental rocket engine, burning up their own lives so that I might be propelled into some other orbit we could barely imagine."

Lucky for us, Merullo was sent to Exeter Academy, the first of many stops on his journey into that wider world: to the Peace Corps, to a job in Russia, a trip to Italy, to a dead-end job as a cab driver, living in the Allston neighborhood of Boston.

With measured, gentle prose, Merullo humbly chronicles the trajectory started by his parents. "Life is a series of exultations," he writes, "each one fated to bloom for an hour or a month or a decade, and then wither."

There's his pre-history -- the story of his public-servant father who, late in life, earned a law degree and who taught his fortunate son about self-sacrifice, discipline and gaining perspective on life.

There are stories that -- without the benefit of hindsight and great talent -- would seem mundane. But in Merullo's skillful hands, simply getting hit in the eye with a rubber ball as a kid becomes a religious epiphany on faith and healing.

A story about working on the Hancock Building construction crew the summer before college is transformed into a piece of beautiful writing on the very topic of beautiful writing. Merullo is asked to write a letter of recommendation for a co-worker. Boring enough. But in the last two paragraphs of his story -- and in most of his stories -- Merullo again and again shows us the lessons lurking beneath the simple events of our lives. He has the ability to make not only the personal universal, but the everyday sacred.

A reporter's question after the publication of his first novel leads to a reverie on Merullo's favorite subject: the chasm between the working-class childhood and the successful life and the lack of language bridging those two worlds. Somehow, Merullo finds the words.

It's only in the final two chapters -- at the very juncture when Merullo himself becomes a self-sacrificing parent -- that the epiphanies stop coming and the writing becomes forced. Maybe the subject matter becomes too big to process, but what came gracefully before, now arrives in clumsy cliche and rushed, self-help moralizing. It's as if -- like his good parents before him -- Merullo is too busy burning his energy in a different direction, to propel his daughter on her journey to a world even wider than his own.

Helene Stapinski's memoir, Five-Finger Discount, explored her childhood and adolescence in Jersey City, N.J., and the social dynamics of graft, survival, love and wit. A journalist who has been both a reporter and a columnist, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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