Joe Queenan, the acerbic satirist on everything from Hollywood
films to sports fandom, takes a crack at travel literature with his
new book, QUEENAN COUNTRY.
Ever the sly wordsmith, a look at the dust jacket depicts the
author --- four of him actually --- crossing a road (Abbey,
perhaps?) in a homage to one of England's greatest exports, the
Beatles. Four poses? A nod to the Royals? Four Queenan
Queenan Country doesn't just discuss the difficulties in traveling
around this ancient civilization. The Philadelphia-born and raised
Irishman decries the necessity of torturing American schoolchildren
with the works of Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, Charles Dickens,
William Thackery and Jane Austen, among others: "At a very early
age, I became aware that Great British Literature breaks down into
three broad groups: books that are very depressing, books in which
nothing happens, and books that are incomprehensible."
"Sacrilege" purveyors of fine fiction might bellow, but this is
what Queenan does best: pull the rug out from under those he deems
to be pulling the wool over our eyes, be it traditionally important
writings, cinema, or history. For example: Why, he posits, does a
nation that prides itself on civility seem to have so many
historical characters who have employed the most horrid examples of
torture (see Braveheart, aka William Wallace)?
Along the way, he also pokes fun at British cuisine, entertainment,
soccer thugs, and the unfathomable logic of public
Queenan, whose previous books include IF YOU'RE TALKING TO ME, YOUR
CAREER MUST BE IN TROUBLE; RED LOBSTER, WHITE TRASH, AND THE BLUE
LAGOON; TRUE BELIEVERS; and BALSAMIC DREAMS, makes no bones about
his avocation as a curmudgeon. "I am a crass American and I rather
enjoy being one," he proudly declares. At one point, he compares
his latest work to that of Paul Theroux:
"During his travels, [he] visited an almost unbroken chain of
comatose little towns, and seems to have encountered every bigoted,
stupid, parsimonious, or boorish person in the United
Kingdom....Congenitally miserable myself, a writer whose sole
source of income derives from shooting large, evil fish in a small,
morally neutral barrel, this was my kind of reading."
To be sure, Queenan meets various cheap, mean, or clueless
citizens. Were they the only ones he encountered? Probably not, but
he has always been the sort whose philosophy seems to be "if you
don't have anything nice to say, say it anyway because readers love
to hear that kind of stuff." One potentially charming story, in
which he finds himself searching for the Beatles' old residence,
turns out to be a tale of deception at the hand of a duplicitous
Queenan's wife is English-born, so he travels back to the mother
land on occasion and sees things from a non-touristy point of view.
The small town where his in-laws reside is described in the
dreariest terms (as is most of the country, except on the rare
occasion where the sun shines for several consecutive
For all his tough-guy posturing, he does show small pieces of
sensitivity. At the conclusion of Queenan Country he describes the
sadness he felt as he witnessed the funeral of the Queen Mother,
shortly before his return stateside:
"Standing in the park as the drone of bagpipes receded into the
distance, I was reassured by the thought that there would always be
Highlanders, there would always be Coldstream Guards, there would
always be the queen, there would always be an England.
"The alternative was simply not acceptable."
Maybe he's not such a tough guy after all.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011