Joe Queenan’s memoir Closing Time begins with what could be the start of an amusing affectionate anecdote about the time his father got stuck on the roof of their house and had to stay there all day. But because his father was a raging alcoholic who terrorized his children, the day is remembered as less humorous than peaceful, one of the few afternoons of peace the Queenan children got to experience.
I’ve read Queenan’s work before (he’s contributed to Spy, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal among others) and while I can appreciate his wit, I don’t like the accompanying nastiness of his writing. Queenan sees this as part of his job as a satirist and while I certainly have a mean bone or two in my body, this tone has always kept me from being an enthusiast. In addition, his satire picks on easy prey and I disagree with his politics. On the other hand, I can’t be too hard on someone whose book of celebrity interviews is entitled If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble. Full disclosure: He is also a supportive friend and mentor to one of my friends. I’ve met him a couple of times and he couldn’t have been nicer. The first time he mentioned he was working on a book about his father but it wasn’t easy. The book is Closing Time.
Queenan grew up poor in Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s, the son of an alcoholic who could not hold a job for long and a woman who had children but didn’t have much interest in them.
…he had simply suffered through so many calamities that the only way he knew how to respond to adversity was to brutalize those closest to him. Happily, his preference for victims shorter than forty-eight inches kept my mother out of the line of fire. Like many Irish-Catholic men of his generation, he would never dream of raising his hand to his wife, not only because he feared that it would have brought down the curtain on their marriage, but because men like him had an unwholesome reverence for their spouses, viewing them as domestic stand-ins for the Virgin Mary, with the one notable difference that, unlike the Madonna, they also cooked and cleaned. My mother was not a Madonna; she was an emotionally inert woman who had injudiciously brought four children into the world with no clear idea of how henceforth to proceed. While my father was skinning us alive with his trusty old belt, she would entomb herself in her bedroom, surrounded by newspapers she never seem to learn anything from, pretending not to hear what was going on downstairs. But the walls were not thick and the sound must have carried, if not in her conscience, at least into her cochleae.
Understandably, Queenan was motivated by escape: from his father’s beatings, from his neighborhood, from his class. He doesn’t want to be rich, he simply wants to stop being poor. A combination of luck, self-determination and the influence of a few kind souls saves Queenan, but this memoir is neither self-aggrandizing nor sentimental. There is no reconciliation with the father, no forgiveness, no moment that puts all the abuse into perspective. The book is a meditation on urban entropy, poverty, class differences and how culture and education can, but not necessarily will, help. (“Marguerite, a product of the slums, knew that if you were standing in front of a Brancusi and the light hit it just right, you could briefly forget you were poor.”) It is also funny and compulsively readable. When looking for passages to include in this essay, I found myself reading pages at a time until forcing myself to stop. Queenan is a master of smart conversational prose that always pulls you forward because you want to see what the next sharp detail, funny line or larger insight will be, as in this section describing he and his sisters riding in the back of his father’s delivery truck:
If I was not careful, I could have easily tumbled out into the street and been flattened by oncoming cars. But I was careful – I was born careful – and these outings were rollicking good fun. Anyway, back in the Paleocene 1950s, when being fond of one’s children had not yet come into vogue, poor people didn’t seem to mind all that much if one of their offspring when flying out into traffic, as everyone had spares.