In this lumpy, unsentimental and ultimately very sad memoir, Joe Queenan writes that as a teenager he dreamed of making "a living by ridiculing people," and it didn't seem to matter all that much where he went to college, since "one couldn't actually major in satire or invective."
As his earlier books and many articles for magazines and newspapers have demonstrated, Queenan did indeed go on to make a living as a satirist and curmudgeon, hurling snarky, dyspeptic insults, like unhittable pitches, at baseball fans, baby boomers, British citizens and just about anyone or anything that failed to live up to his impossibly high standards.
Gleefully combining the politically incorrect malice of P.J. O'Rourke with the artful vituperation of Auberon Waugh, Queenan has described himself as "an acerbic, mean-spirited observer of the human condition," "a sneering churl" and a "human adder," and his new book "Closing Time" traces the roots of his anger back to his childhood and his ugly, violent relationship with his alcoholic father.
In portions of this book that anger -- and the author's love of hyperbole -- can make for trying, high-decibel screeds. The reader is subjected to seemingly unedited, rage-filled rants about his hatred of his father and the awfulness of growing up with no money, and sarcastic generalizations about the poor: "If you are born poor and stupid, you're going to need to be very lucky. If you are poor and stupid and ugly, you are going to need to be even luckier."
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As the book progresses, however, Queenan gradually finds a more nuanced voice, capable of expressing not just fury and condescension but also humor, irony and melancholy. His tortured relationship with his father slowly gains in depth and chiaroscuro, and his portraits of friends, relatives and teachers evolve into Dickensian character studies even as they immerse us in the gritty Philadelphia neighborhoods he knew as a boy.
In 1959, Queenan recalls, his family lost its house, went on public assistance and moved into a housing project in northwestern Philadelphia, which to his 8-year-old eyes looked like a Lego village but which, like all their homes with their abusive father, came to feel like a prison. He writes that he has always believed that his father's "ruinous drinking and brutality toward his children dates from this event."
Having been laid off from a reasonably well-paying office position, his father went on to work as a security guard, furniture mover and truck driver, but none of these jobs lasted for long, and Queenan recalls that "things around the house would start to disappear: the TV would get hocked to a pawnshop, then the radio, then the clock radio." His father unloaded these things "not to buy food but to buy liquor," the author writes, and when he was drinking, he frequently turned on his children, savagely beating them with his belt while their mother retreated to her bedroom, pretending not to hear what was going on downstairs.
Queenan spent much of his youth trying to find a way to escape from his father and his father's world. He vowed to become a priest and studied briefly at a seminary. He sought refuge in books and arranged his schedule to spend as little time as possible at home. And he found two eccentric but kindly father figures who took him under their wings.
It was his own despised father who bequeathed him a love of books and a determination to become a writer. A "working-class autodidact" who had read Hemingway and Dickens and much of Shakespeare, his father understood what the author's teachers did not, that "literature was a balm and a beacon, not a dead amphibian to be carved up in a laboratory." He understood that writing "had cathartic power," that putting words on paper somehow "enabled the otherwise impotent to exert a measure of control over their environment." Unwittingly perhaps he had given his son the tools to escape Philadelphia and reinvent himself in New York and Paris as a writer.
The young Queenan learned about classical music from a girlfriend, won a scholarship to spend a year in France and "started to do things that people from my background did not normally do": he studied Eastern philosophy, read the complete works of Maxim Gorky, joined the Zarathustra Philosophical Society and took a Greek theater course. He left copies of Ionesco's "Cantatrice Chauve" and Anouilh's "Becket" around the living room, as a way of taunting his father, and brandished his newly acquired knowledge and sophistication as a weapon.
Unlike many memoirists, who talk about closure or forgiveness or absolution, Queenan says that he never forgave his father for his behavior, that his understanding of the hardships in his father's early life -- being accidentally shot in the head at 12, getting thrown into a military prison in Georgia after going AWOL -- never led to a sense of clemency or understanding. When his father lay dying in a hospital in Philadelphia in the late '90s, Queenan says, he dutifully spent hours by his father's bedside, talking about baseball and boxing and World War II, but deliberately avoided serious subjects.
"The emotions we had relied on in our dealings for the past five decades were hatred, resentment, condescension, distrust," he writes. "There was no possibility of a full debriefing or a chimes-at-midnight heart-to-heart now. We were like battered warships that desperately sought to engage but could never maneuver close enough to get the grappling hooks secured."