Closing Time by Joe Queenan

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Closing Time by Joe Queenan

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A detailed memoir of a father/son relationship. Joe Queenan sets the record straight about his alcoholic father and deprived Catholic childhood in Philadelphia in the 1950's and 1960's.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 338 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330458276

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Joe Queenan made good despite a deprived and neglected childhood. His world was a far cry from the middle class background of most aspiring writers of his generation. He grew up in Philadelphia, born to parents so immersed in their own problems that they made little attempt to love or care for their four children. Practically the only way his father provided a role model was in his love of reading. Otherwise, he was an alcoholic, frequently beating his young children.

It seems that Mrs Queenan lacked homemaking and parenting skills and realized early on that she had made a poor choice of mate. The family moved into social housing in a spiral of downward social mobility as his father became less and less capable of holding down a job. Against the odds, the bright young Joe used the Roman Catholic church and a college education to lever his way out of terribly inadequate family circumstances. Joe Queenan's life story leaves me full of admiration for the man he became.

Being poor, Joe Queenan points out, is not by itself so terrible: children survive hunger and poverty when they are loved. In his family, though, they had to gnaw uncooked pasta until midnight, waiting for their father to return home from the bar with the remains of his pay check. Such a poor environment for growing leaves its mark on the adult. Children deserve better treatment, says Queenan, as he looks back in anger at the social and economic discrimination the family suffered. I sense that Queenan's trademark 'acerbic riffs', to quote the front jacket, demonstrate his long term response to the injustices the child observed.

I found the final chapters very interesting. After years of abuse, it is unsurprising that the relationship between the father and his four children broke down. Yet when Joe Queenan discovered his father's cancer, he gave financial and emotional support to the terminally-ill man. I don't think this was a gesture of filial love, but came from a sense of humanity. Maybe Joe, of all the family, was the only one healed enough at that point to have come to terms with his father's terrible behaviour.

Settled in a comfortable flat at last, the old man became a model neighbour, ironically turning over a new leaf so that the neighbours – unlike the family – truly grieved when the old man died.

I imagine Joe Queenan started writing this memoir to make sense of his narrative story, to lay some ghosts and assuage the anger. To me the story trotted along briskly only in the final pages when the writing was at its most direct, when the anger had dissipated.

This leaves an elegantly-written book, long on exposition but short on the elements needed for a well-paced story. This is neither a misery memoir for the supermarket shelves (you may need a dictionary to hand as you read it) nor a slice of social history for the academically-minded. Sorry, but I far preferred Jacqueline Walker's gritty Pilgrim State which I reviewed recently.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

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