Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home and Beyond
by Roland Merullo ( Micronesia 1979–80)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
REVERE BEACH ELEGY is an autobiography of a painfully honest, and consequently endearing writer, Roland Merullo. It is not, however, “all about him.” Merullo reflects upon his myriad experiences in ways that hold a mirror to the reader’s own life stories and his or her own reactions to them. You don’t have to be Italian American (though I am) from an lower middle class enclave in Revere Beach, Massachusetts to empathize with Merullo’s childhood in an immigrant society with all the pressures that implies — “strictures of the old world and the promises and possibilities of the new.” When he is almost blinded by a baseball, his family believes that it was their prayers to St. Lucy that cured him, as they believe that every good thing that happens to him comes from the saints, including hard-won achievements as an outstanding student and a scholarship to Exeter Academy. Arriving in that ivory tower, Merullo marvels at the luxuries of the elite, but appreciates even more his home town. “After all, how many kids have a beach and an amusement park in their front yard?”
He also deeply appreciates his family’s sacrifices and support on his behalf. “They turned themselves 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 but which was supposed to be better.”
This is an example of Merullo’s imaginative writing style. Every page is packed with words that propel the reader into the author’s personal orbit, as he explores the time and space of his life. “. . . a series of exultations, each one fated to bloom for an hour or a month or a decade, and then wither.”
Defying his family’s expectations, Merullo eschews an academic or a diplomatic career after three stints with USIA in Russia, where he meets “. . . thieves, torturers, professional liars and leg breakers,” but discovers underneath the muck, “an innocence as pure and humble as anything Eden ever saw.” He is pushed around by the KGB and falls passionately in love with a rebellious Russian girl whom he must leave, but will never forget.
Young Merullo longs for solitude and escapes to his own hermitage in Vermont for a time, trying to define himself. “For many of us, within the symphony of our 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.”
Then he joins the Peace Corps, because he wants to help people, an ideal that becomes trite in Truk, a Micronesian island where he learns that the folk there have a whole lot more to teach him about survival in a sweet paradise than he could ever teach them about scrambling through his own sour society. After six months, he does not find “the toughest job he’d ever love,” he finds no job at all and, bored with being ineffectual, quits Peace Corps. He describes his agony over his decision and its lifelong consequences, “. . . the little sting of shame . . .” warranted or not, that afflicts anyone who has ET’d.
The drowning demon of pride clutches at anything to save itself — it blames, rationalizes, lashes out. . . . For years and years after I came back from Micronesia just the sound of the words “Peace Corps” filled me with shame . . . .
. . . even now there is something in the background, a whispered failure, failure, failure, penance of proud men.”
Merullo meets Amanda, the mate of his life. They share the same ideals, the same aspirations to rise above the mundane life of middle class America, determined to “. . . solve things on our own . . . rather than letting society’s great impersonal institutions solve them for us.” They live poor in Boston, he drives a cab, she takes menial jobs, he writes, she works for her degree, their emotional elevator gets stuck between floors on sticky cables of poverty, or slides easily when greased with a few bucks and passion.
Merullo paints a kaleidoscope of people, characters he meets on his many peregrinations around the world, people who embody the places, reflect his own faults and virtues, and he strives to describe the empty space in himself he keeps trying to fill.
Merullo is a terminal romantic. He keeps fantasizing about the possibility of transport into the ether of beauty and truth, as if the Roman mythological gods, or preferably, goddesses, might pick him up at any moment and carry him to Olympia. He keeps hoping with every trip to Italy to find “. . . a deep, pleased peace.” But again and again he learns that “There is no perfect place, no perfect self.” He makes a pilgrimage to his grandmother’s birth place near Naples, because his nonna was the one person in his life who personified goodness, peace, tranquility, a lighthouse in his family’s rocky harbor. At last he finds that peace among the simple goodness of villagers who take him in, shelter and feed him and his family.
I immediately related to that story, having attended a family wedding in Calabria last fall, where a dozen Italians sat around the table, eating, drinking wine, gesticulating wildly and out-shouting each other with allegria. The nonna, however, sat quietly in her black dress, watching everyone with benevolent eyes and a soft smile, a island of peace in the maelstrom.
Small editorial problems in the book irritated me as much as having to comment on them. I chose to ignore them in the context of overriding lyrical story-telling.
Merullo is not yet old, yet he has accumulated wisdom through all the years of his life. And he comes up with this simple conclusion. “. . . everything moves the individual soul toward humility.” “Life sands the soul smooth . . .”
My simple conclusion is that anyone with a soul will love this book.
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Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations in New York and UNESCO in Paris, for international development programs at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002.