In “Closing Time,” Joe Queenan’s new memoir, the author was none too pleased with his high school girlfriend when she told him that “she had big plans for her life, and that none of them included me.” She was on her way to study music at Catholic University (out of state, that is), while Joe would be only a few blocks from home, his “dream . . . to make a living by ridiculing people, and it didn’t seem to matter all that much where I got my degree, as you couldn’t major in satire or invective.” Tongue-in-cheek maybe, but Queenan, the author of nine books, is best known today as a humorist and cultural critic, a contributor to publications that include the New York Times, GQ and Rolling Stone.
By the time he matriculates to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, more than two-thirds of the way through this book, Queenan’s eventual escape -- from family, class and the City of Brotherly Love to boot -- is a foregone conclusion. “Closing Time” is a tale of survival, full of the requisite twists and turns, but there’s no question that the author will prevail -- it’s only a matter of how. Partly a coming-of-age story, the memoir is mostly a rant -- justified -- against poverty, and especially against the father Queenan learned to despise well before his 10th birthday.
The third of four children and the only boy, Queenan was raised in rundown neighborhoods by a violent alcoholic and his mostly indifferent wife, who holed herself up in an adjacent room with the newspaper when one of her children took a beating. In 12 chapters and an epilogue, the author takes the reader from elementary school in the 1950s all the way to the triumph of his own daughter’s acceptance to Harvard in 2001.
In the meantime, he pays particular attention to a cast of peripheral characters -- family, friends and Philadelphia herself -- but as richly as Queenan describes those people and places, he shortchanges us about others. How astounding, for instance, to learn 10 pages from the end of the book that his mother “had a wonderful sense of humor.” Since when? we can’t help but ask, knowing her only as bitterly disappointed and detached.
Equally strange that a usually incisive critic would choose to repeat himself -- in content and form -- as much as Queenan does. Chapter 1 begins: “When a father dies, it is customary to forage through stored memories to conjure up an image that bathes him in the most heroic light.” Some 300 pages later, in his epilogue, he writes, “When a father dies, it is customary to forage through stored memories and conjure up an image that casts him in the most attractive light.” In between, he offers an exhaustive account of his parochial education, his views about class and his search for paternal surrogates, generously crediting uncles, employers and the parents of friends with teaching him how to be in the world. But the digression and repetition throughout smack of an author not in control of his material and slightly infatuated with the sound of his own voice.
“Closing Time” recalls other writers on paternal neglect and betrayal, Scott Russell Sanders in particular, whose essay about his father’s alcoholism, “Under the Influence,” is heartbreaking by virtue of the author’s empathy and insight. Queenan, on the other hand -- as inured to self-doubt as he is to the merits of 12-step therapies -- resolves to neither forgive nor credit the notion that substance abuse is actually a disease. “The Aquarian Age approach . . . suited him to a tee,” he writes of his father’s alcoholism. “First you beat your kids, then you blamed it on your metabolism.”
Sure enough, as prescribed by Alcoholics Anonymous, Queenan Sr. actually did offer his hand to his son in an effort to make amends. “Nothing my father had done in all the years I’d known him infuriated me more than this fleabag apology,” Queenan writes. But then -- a surprise development -- not only are father and son reconciled, but the writing also becomes muscular and focused in a way it is not for the first two-thirds of the book. In his extended conclusion, Queenan does right by his father after all; he sees to it that he has a decent place to live and die, and shows up in the man’s final days with regularity and good cheer.
“Reviewers tend to err on the side of caution, fearing reprisals down the road,” wrote Queenan in an essay for the New York Times Book Review last November. “Books are described as being ‘compulsively readable,’ when they are merely ‘O.K.'; ‘jaw-droppingly good,’ when they are actually ‘not bad’. . . . " “Closing Time,” I’m compelled to report, is not bad -- it’s even pretty good toward the end -- but taken in its entirety, though ambitious in scope, Queenan’s memoir of growing up poor in the City of Brotherly Love is, in fact, only OK.
Lenney is the author of “Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir.”