Closing Time

Joe Queenan has forged a literary career out of caustic eviscerations of everything from baby boomers (Balsamic Dreams) to those tea-drinkers across the Atlantic pond (Queenan Country). He eats acid and vitriol for breakfast. This, after all, is the man who once called Meryl Streep a “monotonously talented humanoid.” So it might come as a surprise that he has peeled away some of his tough hide to try his hand at a tender memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. Closing Time is, by turns, brutally honest, brutally funny, and, yes, filled with scathing attacks on the unworthy. This time, Queenan targets his father, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well whose inability to hold a steady job kept the family hovering near the poverty line for years. Queenan Senior — “a miserable, deranged, booze-soaked failure” — was also fond of whipping his four children with the buckle end of a belt. “He beat us often and he beat us savagely,” Queenan writes. Not quite an American Angela’s Ashes, Queenan’s memoir nonetheless takes the reader on a sentimental journey through Philly housing projects, his Catholic school years, an eventual escape into the comfort of literature, and a late-in-life reckoning with his dying father. One flaw with Closing Time — and it’s a relatively minor one — is that because sarcasm is inevitably laced with exaggeration, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between truth and hyperbole. Some of Queenan’s funniest lines are balanced against the harsh realities of his circumstances: “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 went flying out into traffic, as everyone had spares.” When he’s not tossing off punchlines, Queenan takes a sober look at what it means to grow up as a have-not: “Poverty is a tumor it takes a lifetime to excise, because poverty is lodged deep inside the brain in a dark corner where the once-poor don’t want to look.” Closing Time probes that shadowy nook of Queenan’s past, and the result is a book that’s as sad as it is funny.