Queenan memoir shadowed by his failed father

By David Maloof
June 24, 2009
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Joe Queenan grew up feeling trapped by geography (Philadelphia’s housing projects), by class (poverty), but mostly by his alcoholic, violent, essentially useless father. “Closing Time’’ traces Queenan’s early life and his escape from the first two confines.

His escape from his father appears less complete: Queenan’s feelings about him, many of which seem unresolved, are what reside at the center of this harsh and compelling memoir.

Queenan’s attitude toward his father veers from longing to disappointment to contempt - especially contempt. While Queenan does show empathy when his father’s life reaches last call, he mostly displays a degree of hatred and resentment rare even for a memoir. The disappointment is that they never shared normal family and father-son bonds. And the longing, from “a child who was desperate to be taken seriously,’’ is for a father who would provide support, guidance, and love.

Desperate for such sustenance, young Queenan discovers various father figures, most significantly two uncles and two employers who provided the kindness and decency that his father did not. Each let the boy know that he mattered and that there were other ways to behave as a man than the ways his father chose.

Those behaviors included ritual beatings, drunken binges, serial jobs (13 in one year), and late-night alcoholic rantings that left Queenan to conclude that his “father was a nightmare from which his family needed to awake.’’

When the author mentions the father’s positive qualities, such as “his abundant charisma and personal magnetism,’’ the notion surprises, because the evidence is missing. This points to Queenan’s occasional failure to dramatize key moments, such as when the son, while doing a school project, discovers that his father’s military discharge was dishonorable - a moment that is stated, whereas showing it might have yielded greater emotional impact.

While Queenan sometimes makes short shrift of himself as a character, his strong, even virtuosic narration mitigates the book’s looping, occasionally redundant organization.

Yet even with that strong presence, the book lags some when the father is not on the page, as if he is as inescapable in print as he was in life.

Understandably, Queenan must find some emotional anchors, in addition to those invaluable father figures. He credits the Roman Catholic Church, some generous relatives, and the public library with sustaining his daily life and his hopes, and he is a fierce defender of the poor in general (though not always in particular).

He is quick to leave home at the first chance, and eventually stands up to his tormenter, then threatens his own life. While he concludes that “my own escape from the proletariat was the greatest achievement of my life,’’ we can assume that a greater escape would be from the purview of his father. Parents, whether paragons or pariahs (or both), shape whom we become. Queenan’s father gave him the name they shared, a subject to write about, traits to reject, and the harshness of words that a writer can turn into truth.

“By the time I turned twenty,’’ Queenan writes, “I had developed my own skills at sticking the knife in and breaking the human heart, having learned at the feet of the master.’’ It is his harsh and unrepentant tone that make the moments of goodness, the glimpses of redemption and hope, stand out in emotional relief like a waking from a nightmare.

David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at


By Joe Queenan

Viking, 338 pp., $26.95

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