The Search for Joseph Tully (1974) by William H. Hallahan

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The conclusion of The Search for Joseph Tully (1974) by William H. Hallahan hits like a thunderbolt. Unfortunately, its power to shock in the final pages comes at the expense of everything before it, which, at times, can feel as reserved and directionless as the genealogical search it describes. While I hesitate to say that the plot’s slackness is also its strongest point–a critical move that feels like a cheap trick–I will: Hallahan takes an experimental approach toward the process of reading and manipulates our attention in interesting ways. This is a risk and I appreciate him for taking it. But if you do not, there are plenty of other things to enjoy. The eerie setting alone is worth the read and the representation of 70s occultism is a major bonus.

The Search for Joseph Tully  follows two seemingly unconnected characters: Peter Richardson and Matthew Willow. Richardson lives in the Brevoort building, an historically significant but condemned structure in Brooklyn, New York. The adjacent blocks have already been razed for new development and his apartment is scheduled for demolition. While the Brevoort’s other occupants–a quirky cast of characters including artists, mystics, and scholars–are finding new residences, Richardson, who is in the aftermath of a divorce and depressed by the destruction of his childhood neighborhood, continues to delay. One night, he hears a whoosh sound in his living room–like someone swinging a golf club in the darkness–and is suddenly struck with the inexplicable conviction that someone is coming to kill him. Who is his adversary and why do they want him dead? Meanwhile, Willow, a solicitor from London, has arrived in New York to track down the American descendents of Joseph Tully, an 18th century English wine merchant. Willow is politely vague about his purpose and, while genealogists, curators, and historians gently question his motives, the reasons behind his history project remain mysterious. As Richardson begins to lose his grip on reality, Willow moves steadily, implacably on with his search. 

The novel achieves a Shyamalan-like climax by withholding vital information, thereby setting the stage for a major revelation at the end. As a result of this strategy, Willow is far less interesting than Richardson, and that’s a problem since his narrative makes up half of the book. Richardson is a fully developed character. We know what’s troubling him and possess insight into the social context–the relationships within the building–that condition his responses. He–and, by extension, we–wonder: Is there something to Clabber’s mysticism or is the eccentric old man setting him up? And while there is a riddle at the heart of Richardson’s personality–what is the memory that’s just out of reach?–we generally understand his motivations. Willow, on the other hand, is a complete enigma, and eventually you lose interest in figuring him out. Which is a shame because–and I am going to be elusive here so as not to spoil it–he and Richardson are pieces in the same epic game. The difference is that Willow knows it and Richardson does not. And his knowledge raises many questions: When did he learn of his spiritual crusade–there are suggestions that he was preparing for it as a teen–and how does he integrate it with his mundane concerns? Willow is an ordinary man with a flirtatious personality, a passion for sailing, and a law firm. But he is also extraordinary; and I want to know how he navigates between these two identities. Exploring the intersections between these vastly different positions would have made for a richer book, one with a less shocking conclusion but with a more profound story overall. 

The human mind wants to make meaning, to discover patterns in what might be a random collection of facts. This tendency came to the fore while I was reading Willow’s chapters. Instead of boring me with his tedious and seemingly endless research, his character heightened my attention to the text, prompting me to concentrate on absolutely everything. Call it the buckshot approach to reading: Hunting for clues to his secret objectives, I registered every detail of his arduous work. From the minutiae of Tully’s ancestral line, to the impact of Parliamentary Acts on the colonies, to the development of viticulture in the northeast, I was present and focused. Thanks to Hallahan, I could give a lecture on the importance of disease-resistant rootstock and the role of itinerant preachers in unsettled landscapes. 

I’m being ridiculous, of course, but it’s to make a point: All of these subjects are superfluous to the plot; they could be deleted with little effect on the overall “point” of the novel. So am I frustrated for having committed these digressions to memory? Remember–for all I knew, one of them could have been the key to this novel’s lock. Not at all! We’re not lock pickers here, and reading isn’t exclusively about plot–though a little helps. It’s about learning new things; and through these forays into colonial history, the novel exposed me to past struggles and innovations that I might not have known about otherwise. Ultimately, these diversions remind us that the past weighs on the present. And, without a doubt, that broad lesson is relevant to the whoosh in Richardson’s apartment. 

When the questions around Willow finally resolve themselves, it feels like a let down; but in this book, it’s all about the journey and not the destination. If colonial history isn’t your thing, this novel still has so much else to offer. Take the setting: an historical apartment building ready for the wrecking ball and surrounded by a barren wasteland. As each tenant departs for new digs, the opportunities for horror expand exponentially. Their abandoned spaces, echoing with memories, yawn like dark mouths as creaky doors open, inviting Richardson, the lone resident, inside. A former tenant says to him, “Eerie, isn’t it, a light burning in an empty apartment.” Yes, it is. The desolation of the building is thematically echoed by the inhumanity of the weather. Taking pathetic fallacy to the next level, the February winter is a character in its own right, a presence at once reflecting and shaping the narrative from beginning to end. 

Of all of the book’s strong suits–and there are many–one of the best is its easy and natural incorporation of 70s occultism. At a party hosted by Richardson and his artist friend Goulart, we witness tarot card readings, meet a “white witch,” and eavesdrop on conversations about spirituality, reincarnation, ESP and, of course, LSD. A distillation of how I imagine the 1970s, these enchanting scenes more than compensate for the less exciting genealogical deep dives. 


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