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Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America


The author of "The Unkindest Cut", whose popular column appears weekly in "TV Guide", sets off in search of the Holy Grail of Horridness--and encounters some surprisingly non-terrible phenomena--in this riotously funny, razor-sharp indictment of our cultural wasteland.
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The author of "The Unkindest Cut", whose popular column appears weekly in "TV Guide", sets off in search of the Holy Grail of Horridness--and encounters some surprisingly non-terrible phenomena--in this riotously funny, razor-sharp indictment of our cultural wasteland.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When Joe Queenan, a self-proclaimed intellectual elitist and effete, cynical snob, decided to embark on the bold socioscientific experiment of exposing himself to the very worst that mainstream American culture has to offer, he had only the vaguest notion of the horrors that awaited him. After 18 months of total immersion, he finally resurfaced, forever changed. And after what he had done and seen, you really couldn't blame him.
Back in the fall of 1996, when I set out to write this book, the idea was the following: A somewhat jaded, snooty, but sophisticated writer (me) would stop reading Lingua Franca, listening to Leonard Cohen, and watching movies like Trainspotting for several months and instead immerse himself in mass popular culture. He would limit himself to a diet of Robin Cook, John Tesh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Adam Sandler, et al., eat exclusively at restaurants of Sizzlerian ilk, faithfully tune in to Geraldo, and take trips to exciting places like Bronsan, Missouri. He would emerge from his experiences chastened, sobered, petrified, and very possibly dead.

As it turns out, that was only the half of it. As it turns out, the other half was that besides being chastened, sobered, and petrified, he also became, to his shock and utter horror, addicted. Kenny G. concerts, dinners at the Olive Garden, gambling excursions to Atlantic City, repeated VCR viewings of Cannonball Run II — the more of these tasteless, tactless, churlish, cheesy, gaudy, and garish gazebos of mainstream diversion on America's culturallyimpoverishedlandscape that he visited, the larger his appetite for such terrors grew.

Queenan begins this nightmarish odyssey, quite appropriately, with a Sunday matinee viewing of Cats. His awed diatribe against this malignant blight on society is fierce from the outset, and it only grows fiercer as he gains momentum and moves on to other atrocities (the sheer vigor of his revulsion, sustained over the course of the entire book, makes up for the fact that he runs out of adjectives halfway through). What allows him to keep this up without becoming tiresome is that he has a finely tuned and seemingly bottomless reserve of snobbery to draw upon.

Like any snob worth his salt, Queenan is fully self-aware: He recognizes the odious nature of his intellectual elitism, embraces it, and makes frequent admissions of the fact that he has no sympathy for those lacking his sophistication. But his morbid fascination with the pursuit of schlock serves as a kind of running self-indictment that keeps him from sounding like too much of prig. At one point, concerned for his sanity, he embarks on a detox trip to France, vainly attempting to cleanse his system of the junk he's been consuming, only to find himself making excuses to his hosts and sneaking away to watch T. J. Hooker and Remington Steele reruns dubbed into French.

Because Queenan is able to mock himself along the way, the book — although unspeakably vicious — comes off as more funny than mean-spirited (if only just). It's not necessarily all in fun when he equates meeting Geraldo Rivera at a taping of his show with a brush with the devil, but it is at least over-the-top enough to take the edge off.

As I sat in my chair during a commercial, fiddling with my notes, I saw a dark shadow looming up in front of me. To my horror, there stood Geraldo, proffering his hand in friendship. Being a courteous sort, I clasped it, gazing up into his hideous, smiling face. No sooner had our palms locked than I felt an electric jolt race through my nervous system. Right then and there I could feel the dark power of Satan coursing through my veins.

Queenan works his way through mall-brow America, from its music to its books, plays, restaurants, television shows, and more, with something akin to missionary zeal. Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon is the result of a sacred and very personal quest to trash all the trash in our society. If you can refrain from taking offense when he ranks on someone or something you like (which he inevitably will at some point in the book), it's a lot of fun to go along for the ride.

Dwight Garner

On certain gray days, it can feel like riffs on popular culture are all that's left in the world. The jitterbug analysis rains down from above (academics, novelists, public intellectuals) and from below (comedians, glossy magazines, ads on the sides of buses). Having something smart to intone about, say, George Clooney's precarious film career is more important than having something smart to intone about almost anything else.

Joe Queenan has been surfing pop's debris-strewn waters for a couple of decades now, in books (If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble) and in hundreds of essays for magazines as disparate as the New Republic and TV Guide, where he's a weekly columnist. Queenan isn't a critic, exactly -- he's more comfortable with comic overkill than with sorting through fine distinctions. But it's moderately high praise to note that he's seldom less than amusing company; his sardonic, wise-ass, throwaway essays simply have more brio than those of most of his contemporaries. He's a couch-potato potentate, a yabbo Mencken.

Queenan's new book, Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, is a high-concept slumming expedition. It's a book about a self-described highbrow -- Queenan's an Elvis Costello fan, a Lingua Franca subscriber and a Henry James acolyte -- who yanks his baseball cap around backward and elects to spend a year mucking around in the lower realms of mass culture: dining at Sizzler steakhouses, grooving to Kenny G. albums, attending Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, visiting Branson, Mo. He ruefully notes that society is "dominated by the likes of William Shatner, not William Shakespeare, and that it was basically designed for the greater glory of Richard Simmons, not Richard Thompson, and certainly not Richard Strauss." Queenan makes a show of shucking his "haughty pretensions" and, licking his chops, dives right in.

This premise, it must be said, might be more effective if you actually cared what Queenan thinks about Henry James or Elvis Costello. But give this man his due: He operates on his own kind of manic, wildcat frequency -- all riffs, all the time. Thus Michael Bolton is the "K-Mart Joe Cocker"; watching Love Story is what really killed Jimi Hendrix; Cats is "what Grease would look like if all the cast members dressed up like KISS." He's also fond of devising handy little cultural rules: any performer named Kenny (Rogers, Loggins, G.) probably sucks; anyone with the surname Collins (Phil, Jackie, Joan) almost certainly sucks; any book blurbed by Stephen King definitely sucks. To remark that Queenan is infatuated with the word "suck," by the way, would be an understatement. So it's really saying something when he ultimately crowns John Tesh "the Prince of Suck."

All in all, this is pretty harmless stuff. Queenan doesn't hate everything -- he finds that Sizzler provides good value, and he respects Barry Manilow's work ethic -- and there's some fun to be had in watching him admit that he's becoming genuinely addicted to really bad art. What's off-putting about Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon, though, is the rather stunning level of venom Queenan directs at the people who actually do find things to enjoy about, say, Billy Joel's music or Robert Ludlum's novels. (The audience at a performance of Cats is scorned as a bunch of "gawking midwestern huckleberries"; V.C. Andrews' readers are "inbreds who had bought her books at the Ozark branch of Barnes & Noble"; Branson is a "Mulefuckers' Mecca"; and a Yanni concert captures the yearnings of those poor saps who "probably scored less than one thousand on their SATs.") Queenan's hostility neatly illustrates how so many critics and writers have begun to deploy cultural taste as a means to satirize and humiliate people who aren't as fortunate at they are -- that is, people who don't rent the same exalted movies at the corner Blockbuster.

Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon is a piece of pop ephemera about pop ephemera; it's supposed to vanish on the tongue. But some readers may be left with a surprisingly acrid aftertaste, one that lingers in ways that Queenan probably hadn't hoped. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I was beginning to suspect that snobs like me were cutting ourselves off from all the sun in this society, that in our obsession with books by Umberto Eco and concerts by the Kronos Quartet, we had deprived ourselves of the boundless joy to be derived from a quiet evening with Yanni." Thus does Queenan explain the impetus for his hilarious venting of spleen here against American mass culture. The TV Guide columnist and author of If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble sallies forth to skewer many popular icons. Among them are the musical Cats ("I was not a complete stranger to the fiendishly vapid world of Andrew Lloyd Webber"), Robert James Waller ("No one will ever write a book worse than Border Music. The government wouldn't allow it"), John Tesh ("almost supernaturally vacant"), Joan Collins ("a thrillingly inept writer"), the Olive Garden restaurant chain (colorful wording on the menu transforms a "repellent morass into a truly wondrous zuppa toscana") and the home of aging performers, Branson, Mo. ("a Bayreuth for Bozos"). Cynics in general and fans of Queenan in particular will find many pleasures in this wonderfully comic diatribe.
Library Journal
Outspoken cultural critic Queenan (The Unkindest Cut, LJ 1/96) travels through America in search of bad taste and then goes back to 16 cities to promote his book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786863327
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 7/28/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.75 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: How Bad Could It Be? 1
1. Slouching Toward Red Lobster 5
2. The Satanic Verses 21
3. The Howling 39
4. Only the Good Die Young 61
5. The Mistake by the Lake 79
6. Iowa on the Hudson 93
7. Touched by a Devil 113
8. French Leave 127
9. Into the Mystic 139
10. He Wore Blue Velvet 157
11. Deliverance 175
Index 189
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Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, June 24, welcomed Joe Queenan, author of RED LOBSTER, WHITE TRASH, AND THE BLUE LAGOON.

Moderator: Welcome, Joe Queenan! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening. How are you doing tonight?

Joe Queenan: Perfectly well. from xx: What initially prompted you to embark upon this experiment?

Joe Queenan: I used to walk past the theater where "Cats" played for the past 16 years and I realized that it had never ever occurred to me to go and see it. It seemed like the Abyss, and I didn't want to fall in it. One day I got tired of the life I was leading and thought it might be fun to try something like that, something I would never do. Saw I saw "Cats" and it was hair-raisingly awful. And that sort of set this whole thing in motion, spending a year looking for things that were like "Cats" -- things that were insanely popular and seemingly insanely stupid. That would include reading the BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, seeing Kenny G, listening to Phil Collins, reading Danielle Steel, eating at Red Lobster, eating at Planet Hollywood, seeing every Shaquille O'Neal movie, and just constantly testing how awful things are.

Brad from Fort Collins, CO: Were you at all fearful of slander lawsuits from Red Lobster or The Olive Garden?

Joe Queenan: No, because when I went to eat in these restaurants, I was not accusing them of any kind of immorality or unacceptable business practices. I just think the food at these two restaurants is horrible. I am not too crazy about the Admiral's Feast at Red Lobster or the pasta primavera at The Olive Garden.

Dover from NYC: I agree with much of what you have to say, but dissing Adam Sandler and Chris Farley? Do you think the reason that you don't think they are funny is because you are of an older generation?

Joe Queenan: I have all of Nirvana's records, and I didn't think Kurt Cobain is an idiot. There are a lot of young actors and actresses I like. These two make moronic movies -- it is not a question of age, it is a question of what type of humor you like. I never liked the Three Stooges. One of the things I never liked about the "SNL" movies is that when Belushi started doing it, it was funny, but that was a quarter of a century ago. I don't see any evidence that we need any more dumb people in this country, and we are pretty well covered in rude, moronic behavior. I want to see someone who is not an idiot. There are people who do stupid humor who are great -- look at Jim Carrey. I think Jim Carrey is funny, but I don't think Adam Sandler is.

Niki from I'm curious to find out who you personally think is the best satirist of the 20th century. Would you consider yourself as a satirist?

Joe Queenan: Yeah, I would definitely consider myself a satirist. The best of the 20th century? I always hate this type of question. Certainly Ionesco, the Roman playwright. As far as satirical writers, Tom Wolfe is pretty good. There are a lot of people whose names don't immediately come to mind.Thomas Berger, who wrote NEIGHBORS and LITTLE BIG MAN -- he is a great satirist. Marcel Aymé, a French satirist. If talking about outside the realm of books, "Monty Python" would have to go right in there and early Woody Allen -- his early work in The New Yorker. I am sure I have left out a number of important people but I don't care.

Chris from Sudbury, MA: Are you sometimes embarrassed to be an American? I mean, look at what is popular in this world. Look at what is on the bestseller lists. I mean, Jimmy Buffett a number-one bestseller for not music but books! Look at who Americans turn to for literary recommendations. A daytime talk-show host should not dictate what sells. I sure am embarrassed...

Joe Queenan: No, I am never embarrassed to be an American. One of the reasons is that the good gets sorted out from the bad in the fullness of time. So over a long period of time, the bad stuff gets forgotten and the good stuff remains. People forget that Faulkner was almost forgotten in the '40s. It was after his works were put out again that people realized how great he was. When we talk about great culture and fame John Fogarty, Elvis, the Beatles, Picasso. Then there are people who were not famous in their lifetime, like Monet and Bach, but in the fullness of time, the good things come to the top and the bad stuff is forgotten. Burt Reynolds was the number-one star in America for five years in the '70s -- nobody remembers that. Peter Frampton had the biggest-selling record at one point, and everybody now just makes fun of him. I am not embarrassed to admit I bought that record -- everybody bought that record. Some of the books that Oprah has suggested are actually quite good; she has picked some interesting books, like STONES FROM THE RIVER. She is making an effort to get her viewers to read stuff that is interesting, not just trash. I wouldn't come down on Oprah as hard as some people might.

Courtney Miller from Akron, OH: Do you at all feel like a snob writing this book? Just because we aren't all as culturally elite as you, does that make you a better person?

Joe Queenan: It doesn't make me a better person, but it probably makes me a better-educated person.

Ron from Brooklyn, NY: I know the decade isn't over yet, but would you rather relive the '70s, '80s, or '90s? Why?

Joe Queenan: I liked the '80s because for one thing, Jimmy Carter was voted out of office, so if nothing had happened, that would have made the '80s great. Communism disintegrated, the Phillies won their only World Series -- so I would go with the '80s. I don't even want to think about the '70s...

Martin from Santa Monica, CA: You write about how you cheated on your saturation of pop culture with your trip to France. I'm curious to know, when you were in France, did you partake in their popular culture and watch a bunch of Jerry Lewis movies? You should have went to Germany, where you could have experienced their modern-day hero, David Hasselhoff.

Joe Queenan: Jerry Lewis was popular in France 30 years ago -- that old joke is pretty dated. French people aren't interested in Jerry Lewis. French popular culture is scary, but in a different way. French music doesn't have the peaks and valleys that American [music] has. America has great musicians in addition to the bad. In France popular music is just horrible.

Nicholas from North Carolina: What do you think is some of the best TV out there? Do you think "Frasier" can ever match up to the high Thursday night prime-time expectations?

Joe Queenan: The best two shows, "Seinfeld" and "Larry Sanders," aren't around any more. I think "Ally McBeal" is the best show around now. It is very well written and funny. It is recognizably different from any shows on TV. There are shows that I like, like "Drew Carey," but it is still the traditional sitcom. I like shows that are different. I like "Win Ben Stein's Money," "The Simpsons"; I really like "News Radio," and I don't know if it will continue with Phil Hartman gone. I think "Frasier" is a good show, but I just don't get Kelsey Grammer. I have enjoyed "The X-Files," but I definitely feel that it is running out of gas.

Steven S. from NYC: You told us what plays you didn't like. Are there any plays out there that you are a fan of?

Joe Queenan: I like "Chicago." I like the same kind of musicals that people have always liked -- the Gershwin stuff. I like plays that have good songs. I don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals because they all sound like the music from "The Mod Squad." I find I am not a big fan of theater in general. I don't go much. I am much more interested in music or movies. I think the musical must have and truly needs a good song. "Victor/Victoria" has no good song and neither does "Titanic." You can go days seeing every musical playing on Broadway without hearing a good song. If they don't have any good songs, why do they call them musicals?

Monica from Concord, CA: Have you seen any movies of note this summer? Any surprises out there that are atop the lists of highest-grossing movies of the year?

Joe Queenan: There is David Mamet's movie "The Spanish Prisoner." It is the best movie I saw this summer. I went to see it and thought, Why don't they make movies like that all the time? I actually thought "A Perfect Murder" was pretty good. When it came out, most critics slammed it, but it is actually a good movie. Michael Douglas does a good job, well photographed, good story -- I thought it was actually a good movie. "The Truman Show" was okay, not nearly as good as other Peter Weir movies. I thought the most interesting movie I saw was "The Horse Whisperer" -- similar to "The Bridges of Madison County" [in that] they made a good movie out of a horrible book. That is what Hollywood is good at, making good movies out of bad books.

Hank from Fairfield, CT: Do you enjoy writing your column for TV Guide? How much autonomy do you get in that job? Does it scare you that Mr. Murdoch has sold the magazine?

Joe Queenan: Yes, I like writing the column -- they let me write about whatever I want. Writers never think about who is in charge. That is not the way it works.

Doreen from Dade County, FL: What do you think about the recent dramatic increase of the popularity of professional wrestling? Does it scare you that the top-rated cable programming is consistently WCW or WWF wrestling?

Joe Queenan: It doesn't scare me, because I guess people in Grand Rapids have to do something with their time. The other thing is that if you watch wrestling, it has a real theater-of-the-absurd quality. They are now comic-book characters come to life, like the Raven. I mean, Hulk Hogan is pretty funny. It has become very theatrical. I would much rather watch pro wrestling than watch women's basketball.

Anthony from Rye, NY: What actor of the past 25 years has been the best selector of movie projects? Who do you think has made some great career decisions in scripts they chose? Joe Pesci excluded, of course....

Joe Queenan: I would say Harrison Ford. He is a guy who really pretty much knows what he is doing. You don't see him playing Polonius in "Hamlet," and you don't see him playing bad guys -- which is what you do when your career is in the tank, although many actors can play the lead as well as the villain. Bruce Willis is great at playing villains -- he was pretty good in "The Jackal." Richard Gere can be a great villain. The public wants someone to be a sort of Gary Cooper role. He accepted it and pretty much stuck to it, with a few exceptions -- "Sabrina" was pretty horrible. He has been pretty crafty about what he has chosen; even movies that didn't work out too well, like "The Mosquito Coast," were pretty good. I would also put Tom Cruise in that category -- he is recognizable in the same class as the Gary Coopers, and even the Gregory Pecks. He sticks with projects in which the audience wants him to succeed. He is a pretty smart guy and has made some good movies.

Moderator: Thank you, Joe Queenan! Best of luck with your new book. Do you have any parting thoughts for the online audience?

Joe Queenan: My parting thought is to do one these things for yourself go to see John Tesh, see Kenny G in concert...go to see "Cats," and then you will have a vision of what is waiting for you in the afterlife if you are not careful.

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