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BOOK REVIEW : Vietnam Vet Fights the War of Two Lives

January 10, 1991|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Perhaps you can't go home again, but better pay a visit to make sure.

That is a simplistic one-line summary of Roland Merullo's first novel, "Leaving Losapas." But the book, despite some persuasive writing, is something of a one-liner itself, trying sincerely to be a paragraph.

Leo Markin, a Marine in Vietnam, stops in Guam on his way home to his family, his girlfriend and his life in the blue-collar Boston suburb of Averill Beach. He cannot stand his memories of the war; above all, he cannot stand his memories of himself. Reconnoitering in a possibly hostile village, he had unnecessarily shot and killed a child. On an impulse, he heads to Losapas, a tiny Micronesian island.

When the book opens, he has been there for seven years, learning to spearfish and becoming virtually a part of the community. He is nearly a son to Mahalis, a judicious village elder. He is the lover of Ninuke, abandoned by her husband, and perhaps he will marry her.

The "virtually" gives him twinges, though. He has not settled accounts with his past. When an old friend of his godfather makes a painful three-day detour to see him, Markin's unsettlement stirs.

He flies back, promising to return but deeply unsure. He finds his father, aged and incontinent after a brutal mugging outside his own house. Drugs, corruption and the mob have moved into Averill Beach. The old community--Italian-American, working-class, loyal to itself--is all but gone.

Angie, Markin's former girlfriend, is married to a local thug and is on the point of leaving him. One of his childhood friends is in the Mafia. His godfather, patriarch of a local bar, is as stalwart and loving as ever; other friends are glad to see him and so, it is clear, is Angie. Markin has felt guilty for leaving; now he finds that even those who love him at home agree he was right to leave. Guilt turns to self-knowledge; he is able to decide between his two lives.

Such a story is hardly new, but it has possibilities. To work, though, both of the protagonist's lives--his two choices--must seem real. Beyond that, the protagonist must also be real, and his two choices must live in him and not serve simply as a backdrop.

"Leaving Losapas" is exactly half over when Markin lands back in the United States. Up to that point there is, in a sense, not a lot going on. True, we have Markin spearfishing, talking to Mahalis, making love to Ninuke, and befriending Elias, a crippled island boy. And we have his unease: shunning the village celebrations when the monthly supply ship arrives full of American consumer goods; his meeting with Gene, his stepfather's emissary.

Merullo writes vividly of Markin's struggle to swim back to shore after being perilously caught in a pre-typhoon surge. There is a dignified and touching portrait of Gene--aging, ill and grieving for his own son.

But Losapas never seems to exist on its own. The gnomic Mahalis serves mainly as a voice to lodge the author's own thoughts. Ninuke--the focus, after all, of Markin's final decision--is simply a warm and affectionate body. Losapas is just a place to display Markin's dilemma. There is much more life and density, despite an awkward and extraneous incident or two, once Markin is back in Averill Beach. Clearly, it is modeled on Boston's Revere Beach, down to the amusement park and the dog track.

Merullo knows his three-decker Italian-American communities--their rhythms, their food, their bar etiquette. He knows the fine line, which is really a continental divide, that runs through them, separating the handful that drifts toward the mob from the many who shun it. He knows the warmth of the community's concept of loyalty, and its narrowness.

There are rich human portraits: Markin's father, shattered but proud; Stevie, Markin's godfather, who makes a royal court of his bar and restaurant, and above all, Angie, older than her age, maltreated, glowing. Only Markin seems as abstract here as he does in his abstract Losapas.

It seems likely that Merullo had an authentically moving first novel in his blue-collar community. The South Seas-exile half of the story is a thinning artifice. Robert Stone calls the book Conradian, but it is closer to Conde Nast Traveler, with Angst.

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "The Tree Still Stands" by Mae Briskin (W.W. Norton). LEAVING LOSAPAS

by Roland Merullo Houghton Mifflin

$19.95, 287 pages

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