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The Prince of Philadelphia

Joe Queenan's Closing Time: A Memoir is without a doubt his finest book.

By From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

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Closing Time: A Memoir
By Joe Queenan
(Viking, 338 pages, $26.95)

"Books," says Joe Queenan in his masterstroke of a memoir, are "the wealth of the poor’s children." On this point, the man is unyielding. He renders it “without question” that serious literacy opens new, paradisiacal vistas for those in “straitened circumstances.” “Books are a guiding light out of the underworld, a secret passageway, an escape hatch,” he argues. The well-off take this for granted—at their great peril: “To the affluent, books are ornaments. To the poor, books are siege weapons.” All of those assertions are open to serious challenge, and Queenan gives us the raw materials to do just this. However, the literary merits of the book in which they appear should be beyond dispute. Closing Time is far and away the most ambitious thing Queenan has ever written. Most of his previous nine volumes felt learned yet lacking, well executed yet dashed off. This one doesn’t. It took him four years to write but, really, a lifetime. That doesn’t make it a life well spent, necessarily, but one that has clearly paid dividends.

In the recession of 1958-1959, Queenan’s father lost the only white-collar job he ever held. He also fell behind on payments and lost the television, lost the house, and lost what little self- respect he had left. The family of six—a mum, a dad, a son, and three daughters—was relocated to Philadelphia’s god-awful housing projects that would eventually be dynamited. They lived there for four years, but the old man never left, mentally. He held a series of odd jobs, few for very long; hit the bottle with Irish enthusiasm; and terrorized his family until they all deserted him, one by one.

Queenan explains the reason for their desertion. At some point, his father had “decided that if he could not cast a shadow over the whole world, he would cast one over his family. And so he did. He beat us often and he beat us savagely.” He used his leather belt, which might not have been so bad except that whenever he came home “spectacularly bombed,” he tended to forget which end was which. The result was not pleasant. The “metal flange” would wrap around Queenan’s thighs and “flail against” his naughty bits. There was utterly “no use protesting that the punishment was not being meted out in strict accordance with Marquess of Queensberry rules.” That would only make the old man more belligerent and court lasting damage. Walls, chairs, and windows, were no match for Queenan père in a blind rage.

For many years, Queenan’s mum averted her eyes. She stayed in her bedroom and reread stacks of newspapers, tried to ride out her mild mood swings, or occasionally put her minimal culinary skills to use to make something awful. Queenan’s parents never technically divorced. They were Catholics, from a time when Catholics didn’t do that sort of thing. However, “emboldened by the moral flaccidity that swept through the society in the 1970s, she finally did work up the nerve to pull the plug on their marriage.” Without a massive cultural shift, writes Queenan, “she would never have had the courage to leave him. But by the late 1970s, everybody was leaving everybody.”

Most of Closing Time’s portraits feel spot on, but not this one. Agnes Queenan had the moxie to tell her new husband on their wedding night that she didn’t love him. She came from a more upscale family and when it became clear that Joe Sr. wasn’t going to be able to support his charges, she mustered her connections and skills and went to back to work to support them. She forced her husband to find intermittent employment and dragged the family through a series of successively less scummy neighborhoods to somewhere on the outskirts of respectability. Agnes could bring them near respectability because she had been there before and knew what it looked like. Her husband had no experience with these things and thus no idea that his being poor was anything other than his bad Irish luck. Queenan calls any attempts to romanticize this poverty “a mythology concocted by those who were never poor” and tries to set the record straight:

Poverty is not simply a matter of being unable to buy certain things. It’s about buying the wrong things, or the things that nobody else wants.…It’s about having sneakers that fall apart the third time you drive to the basket, shoes held together with adhesive tape, shirts that start out as XLS but end up as Mediums the first time they’re laundered.…It’s about bad diets, bad teeth, bad feet, bad playgrounds, bad parents, bad attitudes.…Poverty is a lifestyle, a philosophy, a modus vivendi, an agglomeration of bad habits, which is why nobody who has ever been poor physically stops being poor emotionally.

Queenan doesn’t exempt himself from this judgment. Though he has made it financially and as a writer, he doesn’t believe poverty made him stronger but rather more uncaring and vicious than he otherwise should have been. That viciousness has made him a very effective critic if sometimes not a very lovable one. He attributes his survival as a youth and his success later in life to the Catholic Church, to a few oddball heroic shopkeepers who decided to hire the lad, and to his love of literature—while conceding rather backhandedly that his mum managed to keep the family out of even worse circumstances. Queenan’s intelligence was obvious from an early age and Philadelphia’s Catholic schools kept him out of the violent hellholes that were the city’s public schools. His faith didn’t last but its impact has.

Once Queenan finished college, he left Philadelphia for Paris and New York, but came back to the Quaker City when his father was hospitalized with malignant cancer. He tries to understand why he did this and finally admits that it “was rooted in the sense of Christian duty I had learned as a child, for even as I stopped believing in God, I did not stop believing in Christ…” He attempts to end the book with one of the blackest sign-offs in the history of literature—“My father was dead, and I didn’t miss him”—but it doesn’t take. He tacks a feel-good epilogue on the end of the book, so that it begins and ends with fond, warm memories of the one man that Joe Queenan will forever be powerless to forget.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.