three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
By: 
Joe Queenan
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-Closing TimeJoe Queenan, a veteran satirist, commentator, and all-around wit, is best known for Balsamic Dreams, a critique of the baby boomer generation, and Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, a riff on American pop culture. Closing Time is his tenth book.

The Topic: Readers of Joe Queenan’s other work may wonder what gave him such a biting sense of humor; Closing Time answers that question—and more. It is a tale not just of the difficulty of growing up poor and Irish in a Philadelphia housing project in the 1950s and 1960s but also of overcoming the tyranny of an abusive and alcoholic father. Queenan’s father treats the children savagely; his mother isolates herself in the attic; and neither of them quite earn Queenan’s forgiveness, even when the father sobers up later in life. Thus, this memoir defies the conventions of many stories of addiction and recovery: despite Queenan’s honest attempts to understand his father, the man cannot quite redeem himself in his son’s eyes.
Viking. 338 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 067002063X

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Queenan’s nearly impossible relationship with his father more than drives the memoir. It is the reason it exists. … What it is to the reader, however, is optimally engrossing, thanks to Queenan’s gift for storytelling and acidic humor." Gene Collier

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Queenan bravely but cautiously drops the cool, sarcastic, funnyman persona in this shocking new memoir and looks back on his horrific childhood in Philadelphia. … In this truly daring act of self-exploration, Queenan bounces back and forth among feelings of fear and fury and rationalization and denial—and somehow lands on solid ground." Elaine Margolin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Closing Time] is a fine piece of work in every respect: self-exploratory but never self-absorbed, painful and funny, affectingly open in the gratitude it expresses to father figures without whom ‘I would have been sucked into the void.’ By contrast with the post-adolescent drivel that is the daily bread of the Age of Memoir, Closing Time is by a grownup, for grownups." Jonathan Yardley

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Irish Catholic poverty caused by paternal drunkenness was tackled 13 years ago by Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, which Queenan, almost alone among the book-buying public, found ‘unreadable,’ perhaps because of its climate of forgiveness. … Whether Joe Queenan’s take on the subject is bracingly unsentimental or more than a little mean-spirited may depend on each reader’s own father." James McManus

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Dinah Lenney

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Queenan has no trouble whatsoever in seeing himself, but not his father, as one of God’s children. … In the end, it is hard not to conclude that Closing Time was a book that Mr. Queenan felt he had to write—for his own demon-chasing purposes. Its urgency will be less apparent to the rest of us." Alexander Theroux

Critical Summary

In his review for the New York Times Book Review, James McManus wrote that Closing Time is likely to intensify whatever opinion readers already hold about Joe Queenan. This seemed true for critics, too, who were sharply divided about the book. Some saw it as unflinchingly honest—a memoir of Irish life in America on par with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (which, curiously, Queenan panned). But others saw it as a hopelessly cynical, unforgiving, and indulgent memoir—self-pitying in just the way Queenan says the rest of Americans have come to be. Indeed, on the basis of these divergent reactions, the main reason to read Closing Time might not be to enjoy it but to find out if you are the type of person who can.