IN REVERE, IN THOSE DAYS

By Roland Merullo

Shaye Areheart. 302 pp. $22

There is, for me, a vexing mystery embedded in Roland Merullo's beautifully written, emotionally rich and otherwise utterly unmysterious novel In Revere, in Those Days, and that is the mystery of genre itself. Why is the book cast as a novel when it is so clearly, in its core energies, a coming-of-age memoir?

I am aware of the obvious pitfalls of such an assertion. I do not know the author and have no way of judging, apart from the few obvious parallels suggested in his author's note -- that he is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Brown University -- how closely the events in the life of his young protagonist, Anthony Benedetto, conform to events in his own life. I am aware, too, that our literary era plays fast and loose with designations regarding the factual and the fictional. Indeed, given this definitional slipperiness, my point will possibly seem more confusing than clarifying. I will risk it anyway. In Revere, in Those Days is a disappointingly even-keeled, insufficiently dramatized novel. It is, however, an honestly felt, sharply rendered, wholly gratifying work of memoir.

In passing this judgment I am, perhaps wrongly, insisting that the two genres, very different in their aims, make use of two likewise very different presentational approaches. The tensions of the novel derive from character and plot. The tensions of memoir derive from the author's strategies of presenting the truth of his experience. The underlying dynamics are in no way the same.

In Revere, in Those Days -- the novel -- is ostensibly a series of recollections. Painter Anthony Benedetto looks back through the long decades to his years of boyhood and adolescence. The story he tells is one of great loss surmounted: After the tragic deaths of both his parents in an airplane crash (he is 11), Tony grows up with his grandparents, aunt and uncle and extended family in the barnacle-tight Italian-American enclave of Revere, Mass. The period is the 1950s and 1960s, and the salient events and struggles are all local in scale and familial in intensity.

Merullo's characters feel as though they have all stepped straight from the neighborhood sidewalks onto the page: Tony's kindly, sad, fiercely devoted grandfather, Dom; his big-hearted, life-battered Uncle Peter, a one-time boxing champ who really could have been a contender but who ends up cuckolded and then abandoned by his beautiful wife, Ulla, and fills his days as a gofer for local crime bosses. Their beautiful daughter, Rosalie, Tony's cousin, is passionate, confused and clearly fast-tracked for a bad end. "I'd watch her hurry away," remembers Tony, "flicking the cigarette once at the side of her leg, catching up with her friends in front of Rosa's Subs and squeezing into the middle of them the way her father squeezed into his place at the rail at Suffolk Downs." The simplest details can hold such enormous suggestiveness in the light of recollection.

In this thicket of family, drawing on their love and entangled in their private torments, Tony makes his way, learning their limits even as he comes to see that among them they make up a world as deep and mysterious -- and complete -- as any he will find when he leaves, first to Phillips Exeter (where an older woman helps him round out his sentimental education) and later to Brown and beyond.

Getting out: What is found and what is left, and what does the process do to the person who leaves? This is Merullo's implied theme. At one point, Tony voices it quite directly: "I remember Ray Recupero raising his hand once in catechism class and posing a question to the nun: 'How can a person be happy in heaven, Sister, if he knows that somebody else -- maybe his cousin or his neighbor or his friend, anybody in the world -- is burning in the fire of hell?'

"A Revere question, I think. The question of a good Catholic boy. But more than that as well. Now from a distance of 150 miles and thirty-five years, it sounds in my ear like the great unasked question in the discussion of American poverty: how can anyone ever move out, move up, without dragging an enormous stone of guilt and sorrow behind them?"

If In Revere, in Those Days were to succeed as a novel, fulfilling the terms it has set out for itself, it would explore this very question, among others. But to do so it would have to introduce us to the grown man, the painter, which it inexplicably refuses to do.

Or maybe it's not inexplicable at all. The author's energy is entirely given over to repossessing the past, the look and feel of those years, and the inner substance of those lives. Doing this, Merullo draws almost exclusively on the tension of the second sort, the tension that emerges from the imperative of honest evocation. The outer facts of his experience may have diverged from what he attributes to Tony, but the feelings and perceptions do not feel in any way counterfeited. I will stick my neck out and salute Merullo for writing a first-rate memoir. *

Sven Birkerts is the author of six books, most recently "My Sky Blue Trades," a coming-of-age memoir.