Joe Queenan has written a slew of bestsellers about American culture, including Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation; America: Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon; True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans; and Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler: Celluloid Tirades and Escapades.
But he first wrote about his dipsomaniac father in a 900-word retch of resentment in Newsweek’s “My Turn” space, a journalistic niche that can attract a surprising amount of attention. I know this up close and personal because I, too, once managed to place a piece—an essay about the broad spectrum of ignorance kids bring with them to their first year of college—in “My Turn.” That piece garnered more than 3,000 letters from readers, got me profiled on 60 Minutes and led to a book deal.
Queenan has never lacked for book deals. But that initial burst of writing about his father may have galvanized his new book—a memoir, Closing Time—about growing up in a home with not enough money and too much booze, which is kinda how I grew up a few hundred miles west of Philly. Unfortunately, the memoir turns out to be another bit of his trademark mean-spirited vengeance on his old man’s battered ghost.
In this self-serving book, no slight Joe Queenan ever suffered goes unturned, over and over. For instance, when he recounts having been offered a shot at a management position with the Fleer Bubble Gum factory, his ability to sneer at such an offer is colossally snobbish, the kind of haughty disdain only the children of the poor can manifest in such large proportions.
“I was always good at keeping a straight face,” Queenan writes, “so I didn’t snigger as the dour, intense, earnest young man delineated the package I was being offered. Though he had no way of knowing it, I was not staying up till four in the morning listening to Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima just so I could land a job as a night manager in a bubble-gum factory.”
As you discern from those lines, Queenan has a pretty high opinion of himself, and a pretty low opinion of just about anyone who is not him. But does anyone really believe that he remembers staying up so late listening to that particular Penderecki composition back when he was a teenager, or does it seem more likely that he sat at his computer some 50 years later trying to determine just which composition would make him seem most intellectually hungry?
Queenan’s reasons for listening to all that music that’s so out of place in working-class Philadelphia seems, in his telling, to have nothing at all to do with honest enjoyment, and everything to do with what poor folks from his old neighborhood would have had every reason to equate with putting on airs. Which is something he never tires of doing. He desperately wants his readers to know the breadth and depth of his reading, even when his incessant mention of authors and titles begins to seem suspect.
In spite of those cavils, the book remains intermittently readable. Queenan has some interesting speculations and observations on what it can feel like to be poor, and even when he is repetitive or too sweeping in generalizing from his own subjective experiences, he can claim some limited authority on the subject.
He paints himself, his siblings and many other children of the poor as anxious to please and eager to impress those who occupy slightly higher rungs on the ladder of money and respectability, and he demonstrates that quality in the pages of this book because he remains, in part, that anxious-to-please schoolboy he once was. The prose is consistently self-regarding, with line after line performing little pirouettes that have more to do with showing off than with the subject at hand. When he describes Ravenhill Academy, a North Philly landmark, he writes: "In my memories, it resembles Salisbury Cathedral, sulking there in indolent repose, reticent, confident, fully cognizant of its all-encompassing, quasi-arcadian magnificence." Prose doesn't get much more purple than that. To borrow Queenan's style for a moment, his prose is like a somnambulant sofa, stuffed with moribund memories, aware of its cushions and the pocket change filtering to its crevices.
Some of those clever lines pay dividends to the reader, but the book is opulently overwritten. And since Queenan expends the same degree of inventiveness to describe an ice cream cone as he does to describe a vicious beating laid on by his father's belt, the failure to modulate tone deadens the book's emotional effectiveness.
But the worst of it is how little Joe Queenan seems to have learned from the harshness he knew as a kid. Growing old now himself, he comes across as the worst kind of snob, judgmental of everyone but himself, and utterly merciless in his contempt for human failings. Throughout the book, he ascribes motives and attitudes to his father he cannot possibly have known, and none of those graceless and uncharitable guesses about what was going on in his father’s psyche ring true. Once Queenan has decided that alcoholics are nothing more than people too weak of character to deny themselves the next drink, there’s nothing exculpatory to be found in those who battle demons Joe Queenan did not have to number among his own.
Readers who knew both childhood poverty and an alcoholic parent will find shocks of recognition in Queenan's account of his own sufferings, but many of those now adult children of alcoholics will, nonetheless, marvel at Queenan's relentlessly self-pitying hardness of heart.
Calendar: Sept. 2-9