How to Grow Up Cynical

Review by Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 19, 2009


A Memoir

By Joe Queenan

Viking. 338 pp. $26.95

As a 13-year-old student, Joe Queenan fell under the tutelage of a priest who was "the first person in my life to describe me as a cynic, an observation I may have incorrectly interpreted as praise." By the time he was ready to enter college in his native Philadelphia, he had determined that "my dream was to make a living by ridiculing people," a dream he has richly fulfilled as journalist, essayist, talking head and, in general, caustic commentator on just about everything.

Now in his late 50s, Queenan has lived long enough and done enough interesting things to have earned the right to write his memoirs, which he has done with skill, subtlety and an honest self-awareness. "Closing Time" tells us that Queenan comes by his cynicism honestly. He learned at the feet of a master, and he has all the bruises to show for it. His childhood and adolescence were tough, at times brutally so, yet there isn't a whisper of whine here, only a determination to face the truth as squarely as he can and to describe it without self-pity or sentimentality.

From his birth in 1950, Queenan was dealt a tricky hand. Philadelphia, for starters, is a tough town, especially in the shabby neighborhoods that were the best his family could afford. For another, he was born Irish American: "We told great stories, we had an odd, unsettling sense of humor, we were fiercely devoted to our mothers without actually enjoying their company, we wished our fathers were dead, we spent most of our lives being depressed, we drank ourselves to early graves, we were Irish."

Ah yes: "we wished our fathers were dead." In Queenan's case that was literally true. The wish took a long time being fulfilled, and when it finally happened his emotions were more mixed than he might have anticipated, but for half a century father and son went at it in an unholy war that had its occasional ceasefires but was, at its worst, incredibly vicious and violent. "My father got broken when he was young," Queenan writes, "and he never got fixed. . . . At some point in his life, he had decided that if he could not cast a shadow over the world, he would cast one over his family. And so he did. He beat us often and he beat us savagely."

By "us," Queenan means the four children of the family: Joe, Agnes Marie, Eileen and Mary Ann. His mother was exempt from the violence because, "like many Irish-Catholic men of his generation, he would never dream of raising his hand to his wife," but he more than made up for that with his children. Queenan doesn't obsess about the beatings, but he tells us enough about them, and in enough detail, to make some passages of "Closing Time" painful to read. The children had a "sense that we were living in an asylum," and:

"My sisters and I had not always viewed our father as a menace, as our implacable enemy. It had taken years to get to that stage. But by the time I was in my early teens, that juncture had arrived because his continued existence threatened ours. Our attitude was simple: We wanted him dead or we wanted him gone."

Yet as Queenan readily acknowledges, things were more complicated than that. His father "did have many redeeming features," including "a great deal of personal charm," a "highly developed sense of humor," wit that "was, by turns, mordant, puckish, irreverent." Sober, he could speak with eloquence, and when he wrote the occasional letter to the editor, it sparkled: He "had a touch of the poet; his turn of phrase and choice of words were things of beauty. He had read Charles Dickens, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, the Bront√ęs. . . . His jeremiads were, accordingly, laced with poignant imagery, edifying turns of phrase, and a lofty tongue-in-cheek style he may have appropriated from Mark Twain."

Queenan came honestly to the curmudgeon's role not because the beatings anaesthetized his sensitivity to others but because he had, in his father, an exemplar of the freelance critic, the raconteur, the barber-shop wit. Queenan understands this now, if he didn't then, so his farewell to his father, if couched principally as a great sigh of relief, is also a tribute of sorts. Now himself a father, Queenan remains appalled by his father's treatment of his own children, but he does not shy away from acknowledging his humanity as well: "Not until he was at the very brink of death did he realize that children are jewels, and the only jewels worth having; that the radiance they give off reflects back on those who breathed life into them in the first place."

Having recently re-read Richard Wright's "Black Boy," I am struck by the parallels and affinities between it and "Closing Time." As boys both Wright and Queenan were poor, often to the point of having little or nothing to eat; both had bad relationships with their father; both were driven to read at a very early age, read everything they could, and set their hearts on the writing life. It is possible to rise up from poverty, but it takes a rare soul to do so, and a force of will that those of us who are more fortunate are ill-equipped to understand.

Yes, the black boy from Mississippi and the white boy from Philly followed entirely different paths as writers. Queenan is known primarily as a satirist and humorist, though there is a dark undertone to much of his writing that is more readily appreciated after reading "Closing Time." It 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.

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