Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance
The Humble Essayist Press,
To do justice reviewing Joe Mackall’s collection of essays, Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance, it’s helpful to consider “essay” as a verb: “To initiate an effort or experiment to prove something; to put to a test, often with great difficulty and exertion; a trial. From the middle French essai, ultimately from Late Latin exagium act of weighing,” as in weighing in the balance. I experience Joe Mackall’s collection as essays into stories — gritty, brutally honest, compassionate, true.
The stories have been chronicled during a particular time in his life: becoming a grandfather. And a particular place: in a lakeside community “with a wife I cherish, loving children and two wondrous grandchildren.” His father also lives nearby. Four generations. And yet, he confesses, “I admit I’ve been blindsided by becoming a grandfather. … Perhaps my heart’s tectonic shifts have shaken my psychic geography.” And in “Fighting Flight,” the penultimate essay, he affirms “It’s just that becoming a grandfather has caused some seismic shift in me.” This is the language of danger and disaster, a radical break. But something else happens. He becomes acutely empathic. He sees his wife through the kitchen window at dusk and “get(s) a spinal chill that can only be called a haunting.” He spots a cardinal on a snow-covered branch of blue spruce and “my breath catches in my throat. A moment of awe ensues.” He quotes Terry Tempest Williams: “We need to learn how to live and love with a broken heart.”
The stage is set. Poised in the present Mackall weighs in the balance the past and the future as he assumes the mantle family storykeeper. For Mackall story is the ground of being and becoming. The oral tradition of his family made flesh in the written word: The Book of Gervasi — Cosimo Leo Gervasi, a twelve-year-old immigrant from Italy arriving alone to New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, taken under the “tainted wing” of Frankie Yale, a hitman for Al Capone. “Two decades later Leo would flee the city in the middle of a late winter night, never telling his wife or children where he was going, only he would get in touch with them once it was safe. Leo found safe haven in Cleveland.” The family bible, the book of origins to aspirations — stories that are physical, emotional, hilarious, psychic and transcendental. This collection is his offering.
In “The Private Wars of a Dying Storyteller,’ Mackall visits his grandmother in the hospital. “My beliefs were not based on the facts of their lives but rather the stories. My grandmother had the ability to transmute her children and their friends into memorable characters in the drama called the ‘Old Neighborhood.” She possessed “the perfect mix of storytelling: memory, imagination and desire.” It is this oral tradition of his elders who inspire him to become a writer. In “The Stories of Working-Class Lights” he states as a matter of fact “I believe members of my extended family told these stories because they had to. And I needed to hear them, just as I now need to tell them. I pass them on as I have passed on my DNA. I do not want the line to end. There’s too much to lose. I need to know I came from these stories, these people. … My grandmother’s house acted as a kind of storytelling central, our family’s collective campfire.”
The iconography of the Catholic Church is threaded throughout this collection like a background tapestry. Except for a few wry comments on the church’s teaching on birth control, he rarely draws attention beyond the descriptive. But he gets his revenge in “A Question of Laziness,” a hilarious, side-splitting rant on Sloth — one of the seven deadly sins — that he transforms into a cardinal virtue. I was transported into a cabaret theatre transfixed by a master stand-up comedian.
The centerpiece of the collection are three essays that I call The Murder Triptych: “By Force, Threat, or Deception,” “When You Write about Murder,” and “Stop-time #6.” In a tour-de-force of imaginative journalism, detective work, and memoir, and from multiple points of view, Mackall picks away at the family fiction that his uncle Don was murdered when he was held up in his car by a robber with a gun. Mackall knows there is more to the story, and he sets out to find it. Even his father, an ex-homicide detective at the time, would only go so far in the investigation.
Mackall discovers that Uncle Don was a closeted gay man and left his wife and child to live with a couple of guys. He was cruising a known rendezvous for hook-ups in a wooded area along the shore of Late Eire when a man approached his car and at gunpoint demanded money. His uncle must have put up resistance because he was shot multiple times and died hanging out his car door. From the police report he reads of the broken glass, blood and gore, and the from the coroner he sees the photos of his uncle’s shot-up body. Mackall does something remarkable here. He transforms this tragedy with a tender transcendent observation, perhaps the most beautiful sentence of this entire collection — “No mention of his soul leaving his body, tumble-drifting down, above and across the lake, flying fast and safe to the far north beyond the water.”
This is followed by “When You Write about Murder.” Three-quarters of this brief essay of about a thousand words are actual quotes and paraphrases rearranged from the opening one. All the repetitions — it reads like trauma, like exorcism. Why? Not an apology in a philosophical sense, but a confessional, in a religious one. Mackall knows he’s in trouble. Has he sinned against his family, his craft, his immortal soul? “What relation was he to you?” the woman in the Coroner’s Office asks. “It should be a simple question but has gotten considerably more complicated. Story to storyteller? Subject to writer? Nephew to…?” When she tells him her own daughter came through this room Mackall has an epiphany: “…for Christ’s sake, stop what you’re doing long enough to ask a helpful woman about her murdered daughter. The story will wait. Your soul is in peril.”
In the last essay of the triptych Mackall uses a device first developed by John Dos Passos. In his novel, U.S.A Trilogy, Dos Passos breaks the fictional narrative with real time events: “The Camera’s Eye,” “Newsreel,” — adapting the new technology photography and moving pictures, — and biographical sketches of key figures of that era. Mackall uses a hybrid he calls “Stop-time,” seven in all, folded between the stories like snapshots. All of them are about grandfathers; three of them are historical figures: Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, and the abolitionist John Brown. In Stop-time #6 Abraham Lincoln, namesake and grandfather of our 16th president is planting corn with his three sons when a small party Shawnee attack, killing the grandfather. One of the Shawnee braves grabs eight-year-old Thomas. His elder brother Mordecai shoots the Shawnee and Thomas is spared. “If Thomas had been killed…there would be no son, Abraham Lincoln. Without President Lincoln, what else would have been lost?” Choosing Lincoln in the triptych sacralizes Mackall’s family, and every family with arguably the most revered person of our collective history. We are all worthy of story.
“Gazing at my Father Gazing” is a tough and tender tribute to his father, a vigorous 89, as they share work and play around the lakeside community, interleaved with a story of a killdeer that makes a nest in his father’s driveway and deposits her eggs. “Soon all my family on the lake, four generations of us…eagerly await the killdeer births.” It’s also a meditation on time: “Teasing time apart at times is impossible. Fear over this fills me. I exist in the past and present one minute, solely in the past in the next” and into the futures of his children and grandchildren, overcome by depression, he sees “mushroom clouds and super viruses, a vanquished America, a white-hot vanishing planet.”
In the closing essay, “Yesterday’s Noise,” Mackall tells the story of his great-grandfather, “an avid hunter all his life,” who happens upon a creature of rarity and beauty: an albino deer. “He froze, raised his rifle, pulled the trigger. The deer bounded briefly away, and then dropped.” His grandfather “moved toward it until he felt he could come no closer. He could do nothing but stare.” It is as if the spirit of creation hallows the site of the horror with a sacred ring. “He felt he could come no closer.” But he breaks the spell, crosses the threshold. “He then did what he’d always done: gutted it where it lay.”
Mackall now takes a startling metaphysical leap: “I believe on that day in the mountains of western Pennsylvania our genetic code shifted to accommodate the ugly truth that one of us had annihilated beauty.” Mackall grounds his belief in “ancestor syndrome,” a theory developed by a French psychologist who proposes that we have to ‘acknowledge the suffering of our ancestors because we’ve been affected by it in our genetic memory.” He bears personal witness to this theory: “As long as I can remember, I’ve been a disciple and devotee of deer. I need to see them.” Note the language of the holy: disciple, devotee, need.
On the last day of the second millennium when the world was preparing for the Y2K disaster, Mackall is at peace “because that afternoon I had witnessed fourteen deer, two bucks and twelve does, walking through a field with a simple grace and timeless endurance….” And yet at another time, when he walks out of his home from his first marriage leaving his wife sobbing behind the screen door and his two-year-old son waving goodbye he comes upon “a fawn frightened and alone, trapped between a fence and a highway. The symbolism is not lost on him.” He and his ex-wife are now friends, and he has a good relationship with his son, but still “feel[s] the wound that comes with destroying a variant of beauty.”
The remainder of the essay is a catalog of this personal phenomenon to precious to comment upon. I was stunned into silence, eyes leaking. It read like the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yesterday’s Noise is magic and real. And true.