'Closing Time' By Joe Queenan
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Joe Queenan's 10th book is an ambitious memoir, perhaps best praised by the interpretation that it feels like "Angela's Ashes: The Next Generation."
Most all of the ingredients of Frank McCourt's dark but richly humored memoir of growing up in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and '40s are abundantly evident in Queenan's flowing prose from the lower-working-class Philadelphia of the 1950s and '60s -- the abusive alcoholic father; the silent, distant, despairing mother; the malignant poverty; the Roman Catholic dogma; even what Queenan comes to describe as the cornerstone of Irish tribal socialism.
"Nothing sickened [my father] more than the thought that his children might get the life he wanted. He was a true child of his tribe: If you were in, he was out; if you were up, he was down."
Queenan's nearly impossible relationship with his father more than drives the memoir. It is the reason it exists. If the book's epilogue were its mission statement, it might have been reduced to two sentences.
"My life has been an attempt to fit this man into some kind of context where he is not merely a villain," Queenan writes. "This has not been easy."
What it is to the reader, however, is optimally engrossing, thanks to Queenan's giftedness for storytelling and typically acidic humor.
"This was our family to a tee," he writes. "We were there and we were not there. We were in the Fifties but not of it. And though I would not come to fully understand this, or even think about it, until many years afterward, a great many other people were not of it, either. Things were infinitely worse for black people living south of the Mason-Dixon Line, who were being raped and lynched and generally treated like animals, while the rest of the country was chuckling at the latest pickle Lucille Ball had gotten herself into. The idea that the mythical 1950s encompassed an entire nation is cretinous. But this is a country that has never been in any danger of running out of cretins."
Memoirs demand a fully developed sense of place, and Queenan's Philadelphia is herein sliced open to reveal all its deep psychic and pathological cross-sections. Its debilitating jealousy for New York gets an insightful review, and yet its singularly prideful attitude (or atty-tude as the natives like to say) is on full display when Queenan describes a year at a pre-seminary school near Scranton.
"I am not sure how a boy of thirteen who, save for that one trip to upstate New York, had never been anywhere except Philadelphia and the Jersey shore could instantaneously discern how awful Scranton was, but I could. Clearly, nothing exciting had happened there in decades; it was like walking into an Edward Hopper painting, where you got the feeling that all the wild, fun-loving people had already blown town, leaving behind only the brooding buildings and desolate streets. The Mafia had been active in Scranton during the Prohibition Era, but even the Black Hand had long since pulled up stakes, taking their bootlegging brio with them. I was old enough to know that Philadelphia had a reputation for being parochial, conservative, working-class, short on hoopla, and I knew this reputation was well deserved, as people in the Delaware Valley worked hard at being uninspiring. But Philadelphia was a real city, with subways and trolleys and crooked politicians and a downtown and buildings that rose higher than four stories and two rivers and a zoo and ghettoes and organized crime and millions of inhabitants and department stores with names like Strawbridge and Clothier and local lore and graft and a nickname. By comparison with sarcophagal, vestigial Scranton, Philadelphia was Byzantium. And I wasn't even in Scranton. I was eight miles outside it."
The neon parallels in "Closing Time" between Philadelphia's time-honored proclivity of expectant defeat and Queenan's life under the paternal gospel that he would "never amount to a pimple on an elephant's ass" are the main tracks of his narrative, and the author drives them expertly.
It takes an accomplished social critic who just happens to have grown up there to point out that Philadelphia more reveres its statue of Rocky Balboa, a fictitious hood who ultimately lost in the boxing ring, than its bronzing of Julius Erving, a real-life basketball hero who, until last fall, had helped deliver Philly's only major sports championship in the last quarter-century.
It's nothing less than a little bit twisted that Queenan's memoir, not insignificantly flavored by a lifetime of sports frustration, would come out while the Phillies are World Series champions, because the city's hilariously embittered relationships with its sports teams get described in this book as precisely (cuttingly) as anywhere.
"True, down at the stadium, after wrapping things up in the parking lot, we could at least take in the last few innings of the game, even though the Phillies, a Chaplinesque aggregation of bozos, invalids, and poltroons, always lost. Two years after I began working for Len, the hometown heroes dropped twenty-three games in a row, a record that will never be broken, and if it is, only by the Phillies. One year earlier, manager Eddie Sawyer quit after the first game of the season, declaring, 'I'm forty-nine years old and I want to live to be fifty.' In light of these facts, Len's attitude confused me. I could understand why he would close the store in the middle of a boiling hot summer day. But why he would close up just so we could drive over and see the Phillies is beyond me. He hated the sons of bitches."
Ultimately, "Closing Time" is another poignant demonstration that successful people and even successful parents need not come from success, always a worthy tale, and in this instance, beautifully if painfully told.
First Published April 26, 2009 12:00 am