The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall

For some reason if a book doesn’t get reviewed relatively quickly I struggle mightily to get around to it at all.  This habit vexes me to no end and this year I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to be better about not allowing books to get lost.

Joe Mackall’s [amazon-product region=”us” text=”The Last Street Before Cleveland” type=”text”]0803232551[/amazon-product] was one book that got lost in the shuffle somehow and sat in the “To Be Reviewed” pile for months.  So this week I resolved to write about it and check that off the list.

So what exactly is the book about?  Despite the books brevity (150 pages) it is not easy to summarize.  It is about trying to go home again; about overcoming depression and finding faith; about memory and nostalgia; about the dying blue collar world; etc.

The publisher describes it this way:

The old neighborhood was the place Joe Mackall left. It was a place where everyone’s parents worked at the factory at the dead end of the street, where the Catholic church and school operated like a religious city hall, and where a boy like Joe grew up vowing to get out as soon as he could and to shed his blue-collar beginnings and failed, flawed religion. When the mysterious death of a childhood friend draws him back to the last street before Cleveland, however, he discovers that there is more to “old haunts” than mere words—and more to severing one’s roots than just getting away.

The titular “last street before” Cleveland is the street Mackall lived on in Parma, Ohio just outside of Cleveland; one street up and you were in Cleveland proper.  Which is not all that far away from where the author lives now in Ashland, Ohio where he teaches English and journalism at Ashland University.  But culturally and metaphorically it is a different world.

So when he returns to the geography of his youth it is a disorientating experience and it takes him in directions he never anticipated.  This memoir takes the reader along for the ride.

For my belated thoughts click below.

And allow me to once again be lazy, or derivative, and use the PW blurb as a jumping off place:

Mackall returns to his childhood blue-collar stomping grounds when a friend dies, for reasons he doesn’t fully explain in this focused but gloomy memoir. Mackall, an English and journalism professor at Ohio’s Ashland University, recounts the working-class culture of the 1970s Midwest and tells of how his Italian immigrant grandfather, fleeing the mob, made his way to suburban Cleveland. Mackall’s elegy for the workers’ world employs delightful language (after all, he’s a “card-carrying nostalgist” with a knack for one-liners).

However, he struggles in writing about his present despair, about what he lacks and what he hopes to find by returning to Cleveland. As Mackall begins to doubt the efficacy of his search, spiraling into isolation and a renewed drug addiction, his prose dries up, as does the narrative’s concentration on his illuminating memories. “Aching to drag the past” into his lungs, he begins to contemplate a “self-administered overdose”-that is, until a sudden rekindling of faith in God hits.

The epiphany, coming after the repetitious middle section, is a relief-but the restoration of working-class stability via faith is not as convincing, or nearly as beautiful, as the earlier nostalgic recreation of a lost world.

The first thing that struck me was how much I could relate to this memoir.  The list of differences between my childhood and Mackalls is quite large: I am a Midwesterner, and currently live in Ohio, but I didn’t grow up near an urban area; my family wasn’t really blue collar; nor were they Catholic.

But what I could relate to was that sense of loss; the feeling that the world of your youth – and all the related connections – is gone.  My family have moved quite a bit and I lack much besides psychological connections to the places I grew up.  I feel like I don’t have a “home” like some people do.

I also feel like I have a strong melancholic side to my personality which matched Mackall’s tone; a sort of blend of nostalgia, regret, and loss.

I think the Christian Century review captured why I could relate:

The central theme of the book is not surprising–that the journey itself is the only true home. Life and faith are not about any arrival but about the struggles along the road. Yet Mackall writes with rare honesty and a compelling narrative voice. At times he manages a kind of dark humor that opens readers to deeper themes.

And while I agree, with PW, that the first third of the book might employ more “delightful language” I didn’t find either the middle or the concluding sections dry or repetitive.  Instead, I think it was more a function of the actions taking place.

Mackall is basically spinning his wheels mentally, physically, and spiritually in this middle section.  The search for his past didn’t bring the needed answers, the drugs are only making things worse and he feels like he can’t find a way out.  The first section has a more interesting narrative because it is a blend of outside actions, including reflections on past actions, and internal actions.

As the book moves toward the present, and the destabilizing effects of his journey on the present, the physical actions are dreary and uneventful for the most part.  In describing this mental, spiritual, and physical exhaustion, the text takes on some of the frustration and angst. But it is necessary to sense the relief involved in what PW calls the epiphany.  Just like Mackall, the reader wants to break out of this cycle.  But for me it didn’t drag on in such a way as to be annoying or distracting.  It felt natural.

I also think one of the reasons the faith focused section, the very end, comes off less flushed out than many would seem to like is because Mackall is a very private person when it comes to these matters.  This new found, or re-found, faith is fragile and deeply personal.  He isn’t going to unpack it all and offer up a complete theological package.

And contrary to PW, I did find the spiritual recovery beautiful.  Once again, the Christina Century gets it right.  The review turns Mackall’s prose into a sort of free verse poetry in the way the text is presented:

I listen to the snow squeaking beneath
my feet and the geese honking
overhead. I hear an Amish
horse and buggy in the distance….
Have the clip-clopping hooves always
dripped with such exquisite
harmony? Down the road I can
make out clusters of tiny black angels
scurrying against the snow.
The sight of these Amish children
walking home from school nearly
drops me to my knees. The cold
wind against my face feels like a
frigid grace. An old man in a beat-up
blue pickup passes me and
waves. It’s as if something has revealed
a tear in the surface of
things. I see connections everywhere.

To me that has beauty and grace to it.

The Last Street Before Cleveland is a deeply personal book and one that packs a lot of emotion and power in a slim volume.  I am not a big reader of memoirs and personal essays, but Mackall’s subject and obvious writing skill made this one well worth reading.

Sorry, it took me so long to tell you about it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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