Closing Time: A memoir
by Joe Queenan
Recommendation: Borrow from a library if you’re going fishing and think you won’t be catching much.
Joe Queenan’s dad was a self-defeating drunk who beat his kids, lost his jobs, foreswore swearing while raving and ranting and attending church, and who occasionally read good books. Later, after many years and much repetition of the same, he died, to the tremendous relief of Queenan, his ma and his sisters.
That, with some minor action comprising working various summer jobs and getting dumped by a talented musician, forms the whole of Queenan’s early life story. Which is to say, his was not an atypical departure from the experiences of many kids of poor, blue-collar families in the 1960s.
Which is also not to say that his drunken father wasn’t a pain in the keister and that his father wasn’t influential. For example, Queenan Jr. eventually learned, after initially misunderstanding his father’s example, that to drink to excess often was not wise. He is now a teetotal.
Queenan is known for being a scathing, fast-fisted, full-body satirist. Before he reformed and wrote My Goodness: A Cynic’s Short-Lived Search for Sainthood, an odd apologia to his victims, Queenan had eviscerated more bodies than David smote Amalekites. Many of Queenan’s sheep were slaughtered in Hollywood; his best milieu was, and is, movie reviews.
But you won’t be surprised that Dr Queenan leaves his scalpel sheathed for much of this book. Like most sons of drunks, he loved his dad but couldn’t stand being near him. And being a writer, he couldn’t help himself and so wrote a book about what it all meant to him.
Queenan is one of those writers that other writers like to quote (it makes their job easier) because he often, as they like to say, “riffs”— which means penning sentences that sparkle and appear clever or are musical. This is a fine thing, but writing that is mainly riffing is ephemeral and uncaloric. As a reader, you remember being pleased but can’t recall why. You can always tell when somebody is forcing riffs: the sentences are preceded by a wink and almost always end the paragraph. Like his line about a college French teacher who “knew as much about French as the rest of us knew about bathosphere maintenance.” Ha. At his weakest, Queenan makes too much of this device. He stumbles rarely, but, in his grateful grief, he never really shines, either.
We do have fun learning about Len’s Clothing Store, where he worked when a kid, and where was sold “merchandise in styles that had no so much been discontinued or superseded as repudiated.” Regular customer Kaye Sera (yes, really), who was a “plain-looking woman with a gigantic ass [who]…risked everything because she wanted to look like Sophia Loren.” Queenan likes her gusto and deems her courage greater than that of a “soccer mom tooling around the suburbs in a socially sanctified vehicle with a bumper sticker proclaiming unswerving allegiance to a dink presidential candidate who got creamed four years ago” (he means Kerry).
Queenan (who originally attended seminary and eventually matriculated at Saint Joseph’s College) reminds us of the Catholic church’s prescience—an important lesson for us today when the Church is in low regard. Let’s just look at a Catholic newspaper’s wise editorial shortly after the pop band The Beatles “made landfall.” The nearly musicians, it said, were “minions of Lucifer, scions of Baal, and wolves in sheep’s clothing—the malefic trifecta—whole sole purpose in life was to corrupt the youth of America”. Lord, hear our prayer.
Ultimately, Queenan’s is a Message book. How could it be anything else? Queenan feels the responsibility to warn us of the evils of alcohol and ignorance. He couldn’t do anything about his dad’s drinking, but he could about his own mind. Books and high culture were his salvation. Dad originally put Queenan On The Path, and would not countenance a bad book in the house. Later, Maryknoll seminarians made him read “Martial and Juvenal, not just Caesar’s Gallic War.” The girl that dumped him (she thought a poor kid from the slums unlikely to make good) taught him the soaring power, and eternal beauty of classical music.
However, we sometimes get the idea that Professor Queenan engages in a little literary name dropping, as when he tells us that he “was not staying up till four in the morning listening to Pendrecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima just so [he] could land a job as a night manager in a bubblegum factory.” I think he did this to prove to himself how far he had come, to separate himself as much from the past as he could, as if he still can’t quite believe it. He needn’t have worried. We can see that he turned out OK.