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

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

by Joe Queenan

For fourteen years, critic Joe Queenan walked past the Winter Garden Theater in New York City without once even dreaming of venturing inside to see Cats. One fateful afternoon in March 1996, however, having grown weary of his hopelessly elitist lifestyle, he decided to buy a half-price ticket and check out Andrew Lloyd Webber's record-breaking juggernaut. No


For fourteen years, critic Joe Queenan walked past the Winter Garden Theater in New York City without once even dreaming of venturing inside to see Cats. One fateful afternoon in March 1996, however, having grown weary of his hopelessly elitist lifestyle, he decided to buy a half-price ticket and check out Andrew Lloyd Webber's record-breaking juggernaut. No, he did not expect the musical to be any good, but surely there were limits to how bad it could be.

Here, Queenan was tragically mistaken. Cats, what Grease would look like if all the cast members were dressed up like KISS, was infinitely more idiotic than he had ever imagined. Yet now the Rubicon had been crossed. Queenan had involuntarily launched himself on a harrowing personal oddyssey: an 18-month descent into the abyss of American popular culture.

At first, Queenan found things to be every bit as atrocious as he expected. John Tesh defiling the temple of Carnegie Hall reminded him of Adolf Hitler goose-stepping in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The Celestine Prophecy and The Horse Whisperer proved to be prodigiously cretinous. And the sight of senior citizens forking over their hard-earned nickels and dimes to watch Joe Pesci in Gone Fishin' so moved Queenan that he began standing outside the theater issuing refunds to exiting patrons.

But then something strange happened. Queenan started enjoying Barry Manilow concerts. He went to see Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli and Raquel Welch in Victor/Victoria. He said nice things about Larry King and Charles Grodin in his weekly TV Guide column. He spent hours planted in front of the television, transfixed by special, two-hour episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger. He actually ordered the dreaded zuppa toscana at the Olive Garden. Most frightening of all, he shook hands with Geraldo Rivera.

How Queenan finally escaped from the cultural Hot Zone and returned to civilization is an epic tale as heart-warming, awe-inspiring, and life-affirming as Robinson Crusoe, The Adventures of Marco Polo, Gulliver's Travels, and Swiss Family Robinson. Well, almost.

Editorial Reviews

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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Hachette Book Group
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Read an Excerpt


Slouching Toward Red Lobster

    'Cats' was very, very, very bad. 'Cats' was a lot worse than I'd expected. I'd seen 'Phantom' years ago, and knew all I needed to know about 'Starlight Express' and 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat', so I was not a complete stranger to the fiendishly vapid world of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But nothing I'd ever read or heard about the show could have prepared me for the epic suckiness of 'Cats.' Put it this way: Phantom sucked. But 'Cats' really sucked.

    One of the things that fascinated me about 'Cats' was the way I'd managed to keep it from penetrating my consciousness for the previous fourteen years. Yes, I'd been walking past the Winter Garden Theatre at 50th and Broadway since 1982 without once even dreaming of venturing inside; and yes, I'd heard the song "Memory"; and yes, I'd heard about all the Tonys 'Cats' had won; and yes, I'd seen all those garish subway posters; and yes, I'd been jostled by those armies of tourists streaming out of the theater at rush hour as I myself tried to hustle through midtown. But all those years that 'Cats' had been playing, I'd somehow avoided even finding out what the show was about. Wandering past the Winter Garden all those years was like wandering past those dimly lit S&M bars in Greenwich Village: I really didn't need to know the details.

    Now my blissful ignorance had been shattered. So without any further ado, let me share the wealth. For the benefit of the two or three other people in this society who don't know what 'Cats' is about, here's the answer: It's about a bunch of cats. The cats jump around in a postnuclear junkyard for some two and a half hours, bumping and grinding to that curiously Mesozoic pop music for which Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous--the kind of full-tilt truckin' that sounds like the theme from "The Mod Squad." There's an Elvis impersonator cat, and a cat that looks like Cyndi Lauper, and a cat that looks like Phyllis Diller. All the other cast members look like Jon Bon Jovi with two weeks of facial growth.

    Sure, 'Cats' is allegedly based upon the works of T. S. Eliot, but from what I could tell, the show had about as much to do with the author of "The Waste Land" as those old Steve Reeves movies had to do with Euripides. 'Cats' is what 'Grease' would look like if all the cast members dressed up like KISS. To give you an idea of how bad 'Cats' is, think of a musical where you're actually glad to hear "Memory" reprised a third time because all the other songs are so awful. Think of a musical where the songs are so bad that "Memory" starts to sound like "Ol' Man River" by comparison. That's how bad 'Cats' is.

    The most disappointing thing about my maiden voyage on this sea of sappiness was the behavior of the crowd. In all honesty, I had long assumed that everyone who enjoyed 'Cats' was, in some sense of the word, a bozo. But I'd always assumed that they were happy, festive bozos. Nothing could have prepared me for the utterly blase reception 'Cats' received when I attended a matinee in late March. The crowd was your typical Saturday afternoon assemblage: implacable Japanese tourists, platoons of gawking midwestern huckleberries, legions of Farrah Fawcett lookalikes. Based on their fulsome demeanors, I would have expected them to give the performers a boisterous reception when urged to get down and boogie.

    But the day I saw 'Cats', the crowd just kind of sat there and zoned out. Not unlike Broadway dancers and singers who sometimes, if not always, phoned it in, the audience was phoning it in. The only way I could rationalize such lack of passion was this: 'Cats' had been playing for fourteen years, and this was a room filled with people who had found something better to do with their time for the previous 5,600 performances. So it wasn't like 'Cats' was something they'd been dying to see, like the Taj Mahal or the Blarney Stone or that crevice between Sharon Stone's legs. Mostly, they acted like RVers who were simply checking names off a list: "Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin--okay, Reba, we've done the Dairy States."

    I came home from 'Cats' feeling totally dejected. In the back of my mind, I'd expected the show to fall into that vast category occupied by everything from bingo to Benny Hill. You know: so bad, it's good. But 'Cats' was just plain bad. Really bad. About as bad as bad could get. Revisiting the horror in my mind later that evening, I consoled myself with the assurance that surely this would be the lowest point of my adventure, that nothing I subsequently experienced could possibly be in even the same league as 'Cats.'

    Then I cued up the Michael Bolton record.

    So much for that theory.

    For years, I'd been vaguely aware of Michael Bolton's existence, just as I'd been vaguely aware that there was an ebola virus plague in Africa. Horrible tragedies, yes, but they had nothing to do with me. All that changed when I purchased a copy of 'The Classics' When you work up the gumption to put a record like 'The Classics' on your CD player, it's not much different from deliberately inoculating yourself with rabies. With his heart-on-my-sleeve appeals to every emotion no decent human being should even dream of possessing, Michael Bolton is the only person in history who has figured out a way to make "Yesterday" sound worse than the original. He's Mandy Patinkin squared. His sacrilegious version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" is a premeditated act of cultural ghoulism, a crime of musical genocide tantamount to a Jerry Vale rerecording of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" And having to sit there, and listen while this Kmart Joe Cocker mutilates "You Send Me" is like sitting through a performance of 'King Lear' with Don Knotts in the title role. Which leads to the inevitable question: If it's a crime to deface the Statue of Liberty or to spraypaint swastikas on Mount Rushmore or to burn the American flag, why isn't it a crime for Michael Bolton to butcher Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"?

    To round out Day One in my personal cultural bathosphere, I picked up. Nicholas Evans's international best-seller "The Horse Whisperer." As was the case with 'Cats' and Michael Bolton, the result was horrifying. In Evans's megahyped novel, a tyke loses her leg in a riding accident, then goes out west with her yuppie-scum mother seeking to persuade a sagebrush psychotherapist to cure, her totally psychotic horse. With lines like "What wanton liars love makes of us" and "It was the last night of their blinkered idyll," 'The Horse Whisperer' is one of those cloying upscale/downscale books where the mom has an attitude, the kid has an attitude, and even the goddamn horse has an attitude.

    In fact, the only mildly attractive character in the entire book is Tom Booker, the old horseshit whisperer himself. Booker is a kind of cowpoke philosopher who always knows the right things to whisper into a horse's ears, but seems to have trouble when it comes to whispering into a woman's ears. Maybe that's because horses don't understand the phrase "cornhole." And, oh yes, Tom the Horse Whisperer is a quiet loner from the great state of Montana. Of course, I was reading about this ten-gallon, equestophilic Billy Bob Freud right about the time the Unabomber was being brought to justice and the FBI was besieging those madcap Freemen out in the Great State of Montana.

    Nice timing, Nicky.

    In the days and weeks that followed, I gradually realized that mainstream American culture was infinitely more idiotic than I had ever suspected. Take movies. Over the years, I'd come to believe that a special ring of hell had been reserved for Lome Michaels for promoting the careers of Joe Piscopo, James Belushi, and others of their ilk. But nothing those dimwits had done on film had even vaguely prepared me for the prepaleolithic world of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. The whole time I was watching Billy Madison and Tommy Boy I kept saying to myself, "I know that these people are alumni of `Saturday Night Live,' so I know that if I sit here long enough, they will eventually do or say something that will make me laugh. Heck, they're pros."

    Oh, foolish, foolish man! Hours and hours later, I was still in my chair, comatose, watching these Gen-X Ostrogoths ruin my day, my week, my civilization. Here's Sandler setting a bag of poop on fire. Here's Farley getting covered in cow shit. And here's Bo Derek, co-starring. What a sad commentary on our society that we have produced movies so bad that you feel sorry Bo Derek has to be in them. Which just goes to show: No matter how famous you are when you're young, if you don't play your cards right, you're eventually going to end up in a movie with Adam Sandler.

    Was all this a surprise to me? Yes, I can truly say that the scale of horrendousness proudly displayed in these motion pictures was awe-inspiring. Sure, I'd known that these movies were out there, but not until I'd actually sat all the way through a couple of them did I have any idea how satanically cretinous they were. Until I saw Billy Madison and Tommy Boy, I'd always thought that the three scariest words in the English language were "Starring Dan Aykroyd." Now I knew better. Being introduced to Joe Piscopo and Dan Aykroyd and only later learning of the existence of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley is like going to school and learning about the Black Plague, only to find out many years later that there's something called the Blacker Plague.

    And I don't even want to talk about Pauly Shore.

    On some of the outings I lined up for my trek through the cultural undergrowth, I honestly suspected that someone had phoned ahead to ensure that the staff would maximize my discomfort. Typical was the night I dragged my family over to the local Red Lobster for our first-ever visit to the garish establishment. Red Lobster, I quickly learned, was a chain geared toward people who think of themselves as just a little bit too upscale for Roy Rogers. Even while waiting in the anteroom of the bogus sea shanty I could detect a certain aura of proletarian snootiness because of the way people were looking at me and my son. While Gordon, age ten, and I had turned up in nondescript T-shirts and shorts, the Red Lobster patrons were bedecked in their best windbreakers and their very finest polyester trousers.

    "Next time, show some respect," their expressions suggested. "After all, you're eating at Red Lobster. This ain't some goddamn Wendy's."

    The Red Lobster menu consisted almost entirely of batter cunningly fused with marginally aquatic foodstuffs and configured into clever geometric structures. I immediately began to suspect that the kitchen at Red Lobster consisted of one gigantic vat of grease in which plastic cookie molds resembling various types of food were inserted to create a structural resemblance to the specific item ordered. This was the only way to determine whether you were eating Buffalo wings or crabcakes. Technically, my dinner--The Admiral's Feast--was a dazzling assortment of butterfly shrimp, fish filet, scallops, and some mysterious crablike entity. But in reality, everything tasted exactly like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even the French fries.

    Red Lobster was a consummate bad experience. It wasn't just the Huey Lewis & the News ambience, it wasn't just the absence of mozzarella sticks from the menu that day, it wasn't just the party of twenty-nine seated next to us complaining about the service, it wasn't just the Turtles singing "Happy Together" overhead, it wasn't just the absence of root beer from the menu that day, it wasn't just the titular head of the party of twenty-nine incessantly referring to different members of his entourage as "landlubbers," and it wasn't even the way those social-climbing townies gave my son and me the once-over as we came through the door. No, it was definitely the food. The food tasted like baked, microwaved, reheated, overcooked, deep-fried loin of grease.

    Admiral's Feast, my ass.

* * *

    After my stomach lining had recovered from this dismal gastronomic sortie, I decided to immerse myself further in some of the most beloved books of the past decade. A good place to start was "The Celestine Prophecy." This enormously popular book deals with the discovery of an ancient manuscript that predicted a revolution in human behavior at the dawn of the next millennium. The manuscript, purportedly written in sixth-century B.C. Aramaic, had been discovered in the rain forests of Peru and contained nine insights. One of the insights involved using a person's psychic energy field to connect with the flora and fauna all around us. The book had sold several million copies, presumably to that unnerving subset of Americans who exercise to Shirley MacLaine videos, are unaware of Dionne Warwick's pre-psychic career, voted for Jerry Brown in the 1992 Democratic primaries, and worship Baal.

    I'm as open to suggestions about how to utilize my psychic energy as the next guy, but I do have a few caveats here. For one, I'm getting a bit fed up with the whole Vanquished Chic thing. Basically, anything that has to do with the Hopis, the Etruscans, the Mayans, the Aztecs, or the Incas gets right up my nose for the pure and simple reason that they lost. Throughout my life, I've adopted a basic rule of thumb that any wisdom imputed to the denizens of Atlantis, Kathmandu, or Machu Picchu must be viewed with extreme skepticism, because if these folks were so goddamn smart, how come they didn't hang around longer? Look at it this way: Pizarro invades Peru on Sunday, and by Tuesday night he's conquered a nation of 12 million people. How do you lose your entire continent to a couple hundred grungy conquistadors when the odds are that heavily in your favor? The obvious explanation: The Incas were a race of 12 million pre-Columbian Greg Normans.

    Gradually, my passion for peerlessly disorienting experiences caused me to experience a strange new emotion. Technically speaking, there is no English phrase or idiom to describe the feeling to which I refer, so here I will take the liberty of coining the term scheissenbedauern. This word, which literally means "shit regret," describes the disappointment one feels when exposed to something that is not nearly as bad as one had hoped it would be. A perfect example is Neil Diamond's recent album, 'Tennessee Moon.'

    "Hollywood don't do what it once could do," Neil sings on the title track, so he packs up his "dusty bags," grabs "an old guitar," and hits "that Blue Highway," rambling back to that "old Tennessee Moon" where he once "fell in love to an old Hank Williams song." Yes, when Neil hears that "lonesome whistle moan," he says, "So long, Big City," because he's "longing for those country roads," and knows it's time to "take a swing down south" to "see if that "girl Annie still remembers me."

    Let us ignore for a moment the implausible elements in this song, most importantly the fact that Neil Diamond hails from Flatbush. Let us also ignore the fact that The Country Record has been a cliche since Dylan recorded 'Nashville Skyline', that the record contains the obligatory phoned-in Waylon Jennings duet, and that Neil Diamond, a man who makes Burl Ives sound like Joey Ramone, does not come across in an entirely convincing fashion on the John Lee Hooker-type track where he sings "I'm gonna be rockin' tonight." This is a line that reminds me of the time Senator Al D'Amato got dressed up as "a narc" and went up to Harlem to register a "bust." Man, did some shit go down that day!

    Despite this abundant evidence of dire lameness, Tennessee Moon did not even approach Michael Bolton's 'The Classics' for sheer acreage of horseshit per square foot if only because Neil Diamond at his worst still sounds better than Michael Bolton at his best. The reason? At least Neil wrote the atrocious songs that he was slaughtering.

    Yet, much to my consternation, I found this terribly disappointing. At a certain level, I had now begun to hope that everything I encountered would suck in a megasucky way, and was honestly disappointed when some proved merely cruddy. Like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness", I wanted to gaze directly into the abyss, to stare at the horror. But as the days passed, as I ventured deeper and deeper into the heartland of hootiness, I grew crestfallen at the failure of certain monstrously popular cultural figures to achieve the bathetic levels I craved. Dean Koontz's Intensity was sadistic, depraved, and revolting, but the book could not hold a candle to "The Horse Whisperer's" Mephistophelian inaneness. 'Slam Dunk Ernest', a direct-to-video film about a lovable moron, was predictably idiotic, but because it had one good joke (Ernest, the unlikely basketball hero, changes his name to Ernest Abdul Mustafa), it could not rival the horrors of Billy Madison and Tommy Boy.

    Garth Brooks--Glen Campbell under an assumed name--was a perfect example of the scheissenbedauern phenomenon. Every Garth Brooks song I encountered was a redneck anthem about truckers, drivin' rain, country fairs, burning bridges, that damn old rodeo, ashes on the water. In the typical Brooks song, "Mama's in the graveyard, Papa's in the pen," there's a fire burning bright, "this old highway is like a woman sometimes," and some old cowboy's "heading back from somewhere he never should have been."

    Garth is always sayin' a little prayer tonight, payin' his dues, shipping his saddle to Dad. But Jehoshaphat, he wouldn't trade a single day, because love is like a highway, it's one big party, and let's face it: He drew a bull no man could ride. So all that's left to do is whisper a prayer in the fury of the storm and hope you don't miss The Dance.

    It goes without saying that folks call Garth a maverickheck, there "must be rebel blood running through (his) veins." But sometimes you've just got to go against the grain, "buck the system," even though "the deck is stacked against you." In short, Brooks's music was the musical equivalent of a Pat Buchanan stump speech, market-researched baloney where the lyrics were so generic you started to suspect he was using Microsoft's Drugstore Cowboy for Windows 95 (not available in a Macintosh format) to write them.

    But even though songs like "We Shall Be Free" blatantly ripped off Sly & the Family Stone--fulfilling the dictum that black music is always ten years ahead of the curve, and country and western twenty years behind it--and even though Brooks recycled more riffs than Ray Davies, and even though Brooks was so bland he made Gordon Lightfoot sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, these records didn't actually make you puke. This was about the highest tribute I could pay to most contemporary country-and-western music.

    On the other hand, it didn't make me do anything. Somebody once said that when you turn on the radio, Genesis is what comes out. That's exactly the way I felt about Garth Brooks.

    So, all right, he chomped, but he didn't chomp royal. He chomped in the same off-the-shelf way most millionaires in hyperthyroid cowboy hats chomped. But he didn't bite the big one. And for some reason, this bothered me. When I went slumming like this, I wanted to cruise the bad slums. I wanted to hit Watts, the South Bronx, North Philly. From the cultural slumming point of view, Garth Brooks was little more than a slightly rundown neighborhood in Yonkers.

    As the weeks passed, I grew fatigued with the numbing mediocrity of so many new experiences I had honestly hoped would be utterly appalling. The Radio City Easter Show was no lamer than any dozen of other spectacles I have seen on television over the years. I rented my first Steven Seagal movie (Under Siege II) and was dismayed to find that it was perfectly watchable. Neither "Jenny Jones" nor "Baywatch" was as rotten as I expected them to be, and 'Reader's Digest' was merely boring, not unreadable. I'd been on the lookout for things that really stunk out the joint, yet somehow, I still felt that the Holy Grail of Horridness lay just outside my reach. What I really needed to find in order to purge myself forever of this unwholesome fascination with the cultural tar pits of America was to set out on a sacred quest, to travel to a shrine of suckiness, to bathe myself in the very Ganges of ghastliness.

    It was time to make that pilgrimage to Atlantic City.

    Entering Atlantic City by car is like entering Venice by dog cart--you simply must take the bus to get there. But when you get off the bus, after three hours of deadening chitchat with a battalion of cadaverous low rollers, you will immediately notice that Atlantic City does not resemble Venice. Atlantic City is a vast series of interlocking slums abutted by a narrow strip of clownish, high-rise buildings erected by people like Donald Trump. Venice is not. Even I, who have never been to Venice, know that.

    Figuring that I should go first class all the way, I checked into the Taj Mahal, where my luggage was scooped up by a man dressed like Ali Baba. We deposited my bags, then I returned to the main floor, where I spent the next twenty-four hours gambling. I had never gambled before in my life, and did not know any of the rules. This was unfortunate because shortly after I arrived at the blackjack table, the young woman sitting directly to my left diplomatically informed me that I was "fucking the deck."

    Fucking the deck, she explained, is the process whereby a neophyte or incompetent gambler disrupts the ordinary distribution of cards by making anomalous or stupid decisions. In my case, I stood on sixteen with the dealer showing a seven. According to orthodox blackjack procedure, you must always ask for another card when the dealer is showing a seven and you are holding sixteen, because you must always assume that the dealer has a concealed ten, ace, or face card.

    But I had a funny feeling that my sixteen was good enough to win. Which it was. One by one, all the other players at the table went bust, as did the dealer. But now I was persona non grata, because I should have said "hit," and gone bust with the ten, whereupon the person sitting next to me would have gone bust with a nine, but the three other players farther down the table would have beaten the dealer. In short, it's not enough to win, you have to win according to the system. Thus, there was no joy in Mudville when the dealer paid me, because I had altered the platonic sequence of cards that the Lord intended, effectively fucking the deck.

    I spent a good portion of the day fucking the deck at various tables, then around Happy Hour I ran into the young woman who had first pointed out my failings as a blackjack player. Over coffee, she explained the rules of blackjack. But she also explained the appeal of the game, pointing out that she didn't gamble because of the money, but because it was "Freudian."

    I like the table camaraderie," she noted. "You have to be careful not to disrupt the table camaraderie."

    "How can you make sure that you don't disrupt the table camaraderie?" I inquired.

    "Don't fuck the deck," she replied. "And if you do fuck the deck, try as hard as possible to unfuck it."

    "How do you unfuck the deck?" I asked, not mentioning that I'd been accused of doing precisely that at least three other times during the day.

    "It's a long story."

    Up until this point, I was $120 ahead of the game by using my unconventional betting technique of standing when I felt like standing and hitting when I felt like hitting. But as soon as I started gambling the right way, I lost all my money. Before I knew it, I was $139 in the hole. For the life of me, I could not figure out what the attraction of this place was. The entire city was filled with doddering seniors, like the world's largest skittles league. Everyone had that bad South Philadelphia hair and that bad North Philadelphia attitude. The women in neo-Sumerian miniskirts who served you drinks all looked like Hittite linebackers. Everywhere you turned, a lounge lizardess who thought she was both Martha and the Vandellas was singing "Proud Mary," complete with Tina's extended verbal intro. Everybody at the blackjack table hated you because you'd fucked the deck. And you were down $139. At long last, I realized that I had come to the end of my journey. I had finally taken the ferry across the River Styx.

    And wouldn't you know that when I disembarked from Charon's bleak craft, a Borscht Belt comedian would be waiting for me on the fatal shore? Yes, that very night, I was comped a ticket to a presentation of Freddy Roman's All-Star Revue, Catskills on the Boardwalk. As the show opened, I was seated at a folding table parallel to the stage, right across from a man wearing a Medieval Tournament T-shirt and a Phillies cap, who seemed to be having some sort of an emotional meltdown. Glancing around, I noticed that I was `forty-five years younger than anyone else in the room. And I was forty-five.

    Finally, Freddy Roman, who is either a failed Henny Youngman or a successful Buddy Hackett, came out and told a joke about Bob Dole's hometown.

    "In Russell, Kansas, it's so quiet, the town hooker is a virgin," he quipped.

    The words weren't even out of his mouth before the crowd was in stitches.

    Next, a Puerto Rican Wayne Newton sound-and-lookalike sallied forth to sing "Hello, Young Lovers" and "Unforgettable," backed by a band with more ponytails than the Cali cartel. Now, the crowd was wafted aloft on a rippling sea of ecstasy. If Perry Como himself had been there, they, couldn't have been happier.

    Next, a female comic dressed like George Bums wandered out and did a routine that included the line "When I was a young man, the Dead Sea was only sick."

    The crowd got a lump in its throat just thinking about George.

    Then a portly comic in a beret made a bunch of fart sounds.

    The crowd completely lost it.

    I hauled myself back to the $5 blackjack table, made a few bets, stood on the wrong card, fucked the deck. Most of the people at the table were quite civil, but a middle-aged man sitting in the last chair was livid.

    "Must be using some new kind of counting system," he sneered, digging into his Croesian $45 stake and placing another bet. "Who needs this?"

    That's when I realized it was time to go back to my old way of life. I'd been harangued for three hours on a bus by the Daughters of Rayon--a regiment of chronic losers who insisted that they always came out ahead when they visited Atlantic City. I'd been forced repeatedly to tip men dressed like Sinbad. I'd had to sit in stunned disbelief across from a yabbering buffoon while a female George Bums impersonator told jokes like "Men I asked God what He thought of me in Oh, God, He said I was too young for the part." And now, for the fifth time in a single day I'd been accused of disrupting table camaraderie by fucking the deck. So there I sat at a $5 blackjack table in a glorified South Jersey slum, being dissed by a guy with a bad suit and a bad mustache and bad hair and a bad job and a bad family and a bad attitude, and it was all my fault that life hadn't turned out the way he planned. In short, I was getting the high hat from a low roller.

* * *

    When I was coming of age in the late 1960s, most of my generation was involved in a heroic effort to depose Dean Martin, Desi Arnaz, Joey Bishop, and all the other cultural icons who ruled American society with an iron fist. This was an intellectual insurrection from which I defected by my twenty-first birthday. One reason I threw in the towel so quickly was because I knew that we couldn't win, that for every Rock Hudson we polished off, ten Rocky Balboas would spring up in his place. A month of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, Michael Bolton records, and Adam Sandler movies certainly helped jog my memory, but it was the two days in Atlantic City that confirmed what I'd suspected about America ever since I was a callow youth.

    Somebody fucked the deck.

What People are Saying About This

Bill Maher
In Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, Joe Queenan descends on our cultural detritus like an angry cormorant. And I mean that in the best way. -- Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect
Lance Gould
Given that the vulgarity of American pop culture is fecund comedic ground and that Queenan. . .is a proven comic talent, the book's premise is promising. -- The New York Times Book Review

Meet the Author

Joe Queenan writes a weekly column for TV Guide and is a contributing writer at GQ. His pieces regularly appear in Playboy, Allure, George, Movieline, and other publications, along with his book reviews for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The author of three previous books, he lives in Westchester with his wife and two children.

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