Friday, May 15th, 2009
Satirist Joe Queenan finds a lot of things funny, but not his childhood. He grew up poor in the projects, because his lush of a father was better at beating his children than holding down a steady job. There was nothing ennobling about the experience. “American folklore,” Queenan writes, “stipulates that those who rise above their humble circumstances do so because of an indomitable will to succeed.” But the truth is, “poor people who succeed do so because they are born with talents that other poor people don’t possess…and/or because they are born lucky.” Queenan’s own story is more about luck—good and bad—than it is about talent. He recently spoke with us about his new memoir (read an excerpt), Closing Time.
Why did you wait 12 years after the death of your father to publish a book about your relationship with him?
You get into your 50s and you start thinking about writing something more substantial than you’ve written before. Because everything I’ve written before was just straight-out funny. I think of my father as the main character in the story, but I don’t think of the book being primarily about my father. I think of the book primarily about being about poverty. And that was a subject never discussed in my whole career. People just assumed I went to Harvard like everybody else. That I was on The Crimson. And I would say, “Well I grew up in Philly and went to a small Catholic school and my parents were poor.” And the subject always gets changed. And even now with the book, just about everybody who’s reviewed it obsesses about my father beating us, but doesn’t really pay that much attention to the poverty. The main theme of the book is that he was not born evil. He too was created by poverty.
I’m glad we have a few questions about poverty! But is it just poverty? You also speak about how he had—potentially—brain damage, from a bullet he took to the head [when he was a teenager].
We don’t even know that was true. One of the things I’ve always found interesting about my family, and I think this was true of a lot of poor families, is that parents tell their kids anything, because they’re just trying to get through the day, and they figure, well we’ll sort that out later. So towards the end of his life, when I tried to get details about things, it was really hard to pin him down. I believe that he was shot. There was so much detail about this surgeon coming down from West Point, that it sounded like he had in fact been shot, but the whole thing about the revolver accidentally going off…once I was an adult, I didn’t believe that anymore. I just believed he had been shot while he had been robbing a store, or something like that.
When I was writing the book, there were some things I went back and researched, but there were other things I didn’t care about. It didn’t make a difference to any of us [children] how we got to the situation we got to. We were just there. We were in a room with a big man and he was drunk, and he had a belt.
Have you read Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception? It’s very similar to your story. It’s about a deadbeat father whose wife and children eventually drift away. The only difference is that Wolff’s dad is a real con artist, and doesn’t beat him.
The fact that he didn’t get beaten is an enormous difference. I’ve talked to people and they’ve said, “Well my story’s like yours because my dad was a drunk and he did this, this, and this,” and I say, “Well did you live in a housing project.” No. “Did he beat you?” No. Christopher Buckley’s dad drank. My dad drank. I don’t think Christopher Buckley and I have a whole lot in common.
To me everything is about class. When I was writing my book about baby boomers, people would refer to me as a self-loathing baby boomer, but in fact, you see I’m not a self-loathing baby boomer, I hate baby boomers and I don’t consider myself to be a baby boomer just because I happen to be chronologically in the same group as those people. It’s a false construct. Black people who grew up in Detroit in 1960s have nothing in common with people who went to Woodstock.
Do you still consider yourself working class?
Yes of course. I go back to Philadelphia…my brother-in-law works at the airport; lots of my friends have working class jobs. You’re never out of that. All your values are working class.
And your children?
No my children are affluent prosperous suburban kids. I’m jealous of them.
You mention in the book that you grew up in the Fifties, but not of the Fifties. Is there a decade, or a time, that you do feel at home in?
I feel home when I’m around working class people. One of the reasons I moved to Tarrytown [in Westchester], the village itself is a very working class place. It’s filled with volunteer fireman and it’s filled with truck drivers. It’s all about little league baseball. When I go to the city, I get off at 125th St and I walk down through Harlem.
You write about growing up poor…living in the projects, nibbling raw spaghetti, wearing mostly hand-me-downs…are you still afraid of poverty?
No, because I’ve got money. But the one thing is, you never stop viewing life through the prism of being poor. It’s a huge advantage over other people.
There’s a great little passage in the book:
The once-poor become masters of disguise, listening patiently while other people lament problems they cannot imagine having, trying to keep a straight face while someone talks about low self-esteem resulting from a relationship with an emotionally distant parent or the trauma of realizing that Kristin, wait-listed at Dartmouth, will probably have to swallow her pride and go to Middlebury.
That just cracks me up. My wife’s made me understand that problems are real to the people that have them, so I don’t just make fun of people to their faces when they start talking to me about their problems. All problems to me are related to food, shelter, safety.
You write about the role models you looked for because you couldn’t find one in your father. Are you anybody’s role model?
Parts of my personality, for my kids. My son wants to figure out what I do, so he can do it. He doesn’t want to work for anybody.
Is there anything that you thank your father for?
He had a great sense of humor and he loved to read. I loved the way he talked. He would say funny things. He would quote from Shakespeare and just out of nowhere he would quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, or just recite the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” And this is a guy who dropped out of school in ninth grade. I had a fierce pride in that part of him.
So when you write a column comparing Rod Blagojevich to Nero, do you think of your father?
Always. Because my father did something that a lot of people don’t do, which is probably what makes a lot of my writing work. It’s to use unusual analogies. Anybody can use the analogy of Joe Queenan wrote a memoir: Frank McCourt, Irish. Anyone can use that one. But to use unusual analogies, I probably learned from him.
We saw this side of my father that we believed would shine forth if he could stop drinking. But we didn’t realize at the time was that after we had lost our house, he was never going to stop drinking. The humiliation he felt when we went on relief…when we went to school, they’d single us out as people who couldn’t pay our books bills, and he felt it.
You had a brief stint in seminary school. Do you think you would have made a good priest?
I would have given good sermons, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t give the kinds of sermons priests give now. The Church has become very non-judgmental. Nobody gets up and says, “I really think we should go over and kill all the Taliban.” I probably would have become a Jesuit.
Would your book have been any different if you’d be able to get closure on your father’s deathbed and been able to ask him all the questions you wanted to ask him?
No—I just think that would be have been more biographical data. We weren’t going to have any closure. I have a hard heart, and I don’t think it’s hurt me. I don’t think it hurts people to resist forgiving other people. Ben Franklin has a quote in “Poor Richard’s Almanack”: “Pardoning the bad is injuring the good.” There was no going back. He took away our childhood and we weren’t going to get another one.
Let’s talk about the title. You mention learning about classical music as a teenager and how it made pop music less important, so I’m assuming the title isn’t a reference to the 90s rock song, “Closing Time,” by Semisonic?
There’s actually a “Closing Time” by Lyle Lovett. It’s a very beautiful song.
Is that what the title’s referencing?
No it’s referencing when bars close. Order your last drink. My father spent all his time in bars. He always ordered drinks two at a time. It always unnerved the waitresses because they knew they were dealing with a person who had a really serious drinking problem. He would be jolly for a very short time, and then the depression would kick in.
What would be your memoir in six words. Would it be, “I did not love my father”?
No I’ll tell you what the words are: “Dealt bad cards. Played them well.”
That’s your life.
That’s my life.
READ an excerpt from Closing Time
BUY a copy of the book