Americans in Italy tend to avoid Naples. The southern metropolis is most notorious for its Mafia, the subject of the streaming series "Gomorrah." This unhappy reputation circulates even among people of Italian descent like Roland Merullo, author of the new novel "From These Broken Streets." In his acknowledgments, Merullo admits he'd heard little good about the city. Yet no sooner did he risk a visit than he found himself inspired.
He's delivered a terrific read, a World War II story told with a skillful, narrow focus. Naples presents a many-tentacled sprawl, but a savvy veteran with more than 20 previous titles knows how to rein it in. Merullo's 2019 novel, "Once Night Falls," featured Italian partisans up by Lake Como. Down south in Naples, he confines his drama to a few scarifying days in September 1943, dramatizing a remarkable episode.
This is the Four Days of Naples. In spontaneous eruptions of resistance, up and down "these broken streets," the city brought off the war's only uprising to evict an occupying Axis force. Before then, the plan was to either ship Neapolitans off to the camps or kill them on the spot, leaving nothing but "ashes and mud." So declared the Wehrmacht orders, cited in the novel. Yet at September's end the Nazis sued for safe passage out; the Allies found an open city.
The material has been worked up into a solid 1962 movie, but over years of reading about Naples — my father was raised in the city — I'd never found a good novel. Then came Merullo, beato lei, blessed is he.
"Broken Streets" takes scattered guerrilla efforts, often improvised, and forges such a coherent overview that readers ignorant of Naples should never feel lost. Most of the brief chapters both illuminate some turning point and raise the hackles. The lone extended flashback is crucial — the murder of a protagonist's parents — and there are just two battle scenes, the second a can't-turn-away climax.
Also, some of the combat has a surprising point of view, that of the Nazi Kommandant Walter Scholl. He helps his troops prevail, in this case, and afterward enjoys a sympathetic moment: "This was his special talent, mixing with the men. ... He'd risked his life just now."
The villain has his better sides, and "Broken Streets" brims with personality. The young couple who'd be heroes in a Hollywood treatment, Lucia and Giuseppe, to me felt less involving than flawed types such as Scholl or Lucia's father, Aldo, a mob gofer. Lucia suffers flat language, her happiness "like emeralds or rubies," whereas Aldo achieves vibrant complexity, for instance seeing the Germans in Naples as "a heavy gray quilt over a mattress covered with a thousand spiders."
But then again, Lucia's the smuggler, disguised as a nun to run a document across town. Over several chapters, in several points of view, she makes arrangements and risks rape and murder, while finding protection from the last people you'd expect. Altogether it's a halcyon sequence, a kaleidoscope — something like a long, rewarding night in Naples.
John Domini's latest book is "The Color Inside a Melon." His next will be the memoir "The Archeology of a Good Ragù."
From These Broken Streets
By: Roland Merullo.
Publisher: Lake Union, 364 pages, $14.95.