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.
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