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Closing Time: A Memoir
In Closing Time, Joe Queenan turns his acerbic perspective toward his own childhood, and tells the funny, bitter, honest story of how his father's alcoholism affected the family. There is no happy ending, no redemptive scenes of forgiveness. Queenan tells a story of his endurance and triumph with no self-pity or romanticism. Read this book and celebrate the unquenchable human spirit.
Synopses & Reviews
A deeply funny and affecting memoir about a great escape from a childhood of poverty
Joe Queenan's acerbic riffs on movies, sports, books, politics, and many of the least forgivable phenomena of pop culture have made him one of the most popular humorists and commentators of our time. In Closing Time Queenan turns his sights on a more serious and personal topic: his childhood in a Philadelphia housing project in the early 1960s. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Closing Time recounts Queenan's Irish Catholic upbringing in a family dominated by his erratic father, a violent yet oddly charming emotional terrorist whose alcoholism fuels a limitless torrent of self-pity, railing, destruction, and late-night chats with the Lord Himself. With the help of a series of mentors and surrogate fathers, and armed with his own furious love of books and music, Joe begins the long flight away from the dismal confines of his neighborhood-with a brief misbegotten stop at a seminary-and into the wider world. Queenan's unforgettable account of the damage done to children by parents without futures and of the grace children find to move beyond these experiences will appeal to fans of Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr, and will take its place as an autobiography in the classic American tradition.
"Humorist and pop culture writer Queenan (Queenan Country) turns the mirror on himself in this somber and funny memoir about life with father in the projects of Philadelphia. Queenan closes the chapter on his life with a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic father. Queenan's father was a pugnacious drunk who declaimed passages from great literature and often chatted loudly late at night with God. Early in the memoir, Queenan expresses the searingly honest sentiment that becomes the refrain of the book: 'I never forgave my father for the way he treated us.' Queenan spent most of his life trying to get away from this father; he found refuge in the public library, and for at least a year ran off to a seminary with the intention of joining the priesthood. After his father's death, as he was casting about for some way to put a spin on their relationship, Queenan recalls that acting as a stenographer for his father — who in his drunken rages would reel off letters to the editor about various social injustices — was the moment when the thought of making a living as a writer first entered his head. Unsentimental and brutally honest, Queenan's memoir captures the pathos of growing up in a difficult family and somehow getting beyond it." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
As a 13-year-old student, Joe Queenan fell under the tutelage of a priest who was "the first person in my life to describe me as a cynic, an observation I may have incorrectly interpreted as praise." By the time he was ready to enter college in his native Philadelphia, he had determined that "my dream was to make a living by ridiculing people," a dream he has richly fulfilled as journalist, essayist,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) talking head and, in general, caustic commentator on just about everything. Now in his late 50s, Queenan has lived long enough and done enough interesting things to have earned the right to write his memoirs, which he has done with skill, subtlety and an honest self-awareness. "Closing Time" tells us that Queenan comes by his cynicism honestly. He learned at the feet of a master, and he has all the bruises to show for it. His childhood and adolescence were tough, at times brutally so, yet there isn't a whisper of whine here, only a determination to face the truth as squarely as he can and to describe it without self-pity or sentimentality. From his birth in 1950, Queenan was dealt a tricky hand. Philadelphia, for starters, is a tough town, especially in the shabby neighborhoods that were the best his family could afford. For another, he was born Irish American: "We told great stories, we had an odd, unsettling sense of humor, we were fiercely devoted to our mothers without actually enjoying their company, we wished our fathers were dead, we spent most of our lives being depressed, we drank ourselves to early graves, we were Irish." Ah yes: "we wished our fathers were dead." In Queenan's case that was literally true. The wish took a long time being fulfilled, and when it finally happened his emotions were more mixed than he might have anticipated, but for half a century father and son went at it in an unholy war that had its occasional cease-fires but was, at its worst, incredibly vicious and violent. "My father got broken when he was young," Queenan writes, "and he never got fixed. ... At some point in his life, he had decided that if he could not cast a shadow over the world, he would cast one over his family. And so he did. He beat us often and he beat us savagely." By "us," Queenan means the four children of the family: Joe, Agnes Marie, Eileen and Mary Ann. His mother was exempt from the violence because, "like many Irish-Catholic men of his generation, he would never dream of raising his hand to his wife," but he more than made up for that with his children. Queenan doesn't obsess about the beatings, but he tells us enough about them, and in enough detail, to make some passages of "Closing Time" painful to read. The children had a "sense that we were living in an asylum," and: "My sisters and I had not always viewed our father as a menace, as our implacable enemy. It had taken years to get to that stage. But by the time I was in my early teens, that juncture had arrived because his continued existence threatened ours. Our attitude was simple: We wanted him dead or we wanted him gone." Yet as Queenan readily acknowledges, things were more complicated than that. His father "did have many redeeming features," including "a great deal of personal charm," a "highly developed sense of humor," wit that "was, by turns, mordant, puckish, irreverent." Sober, he could speak with eloquence, and when he wrote the occasional letter to the editor, it sparkled: He "had a touch of the poet; his turn of phrase and choice of words were things of beauty. He had read Charles Dickens, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, the Brontes. ... His jeremiads were, accordingly, laced with poignant imagery, edifying turns of phrase, and a lofty tongue-in-cheek style he may have appropriated from Mark Twain." Queenan came honestly to the curmudgeon's role not because the beatings anaesthetized his sensitivity to others but because he had, in his father, an exemplar of the freelance critic, the raconteur, the barber-shop wit. Queenan understands this now, if he didn't then, so his farewell to his father, if couched principally as a great sigh of relief, is also a tribute of sorts. Now himself a father, Queenan remains appalled by his father's treatment of his own children, but he does not shy away from acknowledging his humanity as well: "Not until he was at the very brink of death did he realize that children are jewels, and the only jewels worth having; that the radiance they give off reflects back on those who breathed life into them in the first place." Having recently reread Richard Wright's "Black Boy," I am struck by the parallels and affinities between it and "Closing Time." As boys both Wright and Queenan were poor, often to the point of having little or nothing to eat; both had bad relationships with their father; both were driven to read at a very early age, read everything they could, and set their hearts on the writing life. It is possible to rise up from poverty, but it takes a rare soul to do so, and a force of will that those of us who are more fortunate are ill-equipped to understand. Yes, the black boy from Mississippi and the white boy from Philly followed entirely different paths as writers. Queenan is known primarily as a satirist and humorist, though there is a dark undertone to much of his writing that is more readily appreciated after reading "Closing Time." It is a fine piece of work in every respect: self-exploratory but never self-absorbed, painful and funny, affectingly open in the gratitude it expresses to father figures without whom "I would have been sucked into the void." By contrast with the post-adolescent drivel that is the daily bread of the Age of Memoir, "Closing Time" is by a grown-up, for grown-ups. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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An affecting memoir from one of America's most provocative humorists
Over the past two decades, Joe Queenan has established himself as a scourge of everything that is half-baked, half-witted, and halfhearted in American culture. In Closing Time, Queenan turns his sights on a more serious and a more personal topic: his childhood in a Philadelphia housing project in the early 1960s. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Closing Time recounts Queenan's Irish Catholic upbringing in a family dominated by his erratic, alcoholic father, and his long flight away from the dismal confines of his neighborhood into the greater, wide world. A story about salvation and escape, Closing Time has at its heart the makings of a classic American autobiography.
About the Author
Joe Queenan is the author of seven books and a regular contributor to The New York Times. His writing has been featured in Time, Newsweek, GQ, Esquire, People, Forbes, and Rolling Stone, among others. He is a frequent guest on network talk shows and has hosted radio programs for the BBC.
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