Review

Closing Time: A Memoir

by Joe Queenan

This is the kind of memoir only a cultural critic and satirist
with the talent of a Joe Queenan could write. CLOSING TIME is a
painfully honest, savagely funny, wise and ultimately moving story
of growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and ’60s while
outgrowing life in the home of a brutal, alcoholic father.

One of the mantras of the decidedly lower-middle-class,
Irish-Catholic Queenan family was that things could always be
worse. But in the space of a few months in 1958, when the recession
cost his father the only white collar job he ever had,
eight-year-old Joe and his family hit bottom. It wasn’t
the first job, or the last, Queenan, Sr. would lose --- in one year
he gloriously burned through 13. Evicted from their modest rented
home, the Queenans descended into a public housing project
nicknamed "Sin City," where they spent the next four years in
“society’s version of a called strike three.”

The family survived what Queenan calls “these wilderness
years” through three things: “the Catholic Church, the
generosity of the few relatives who did not abandon us in our time
of need, and the public library.” As much as it is the story
of Queenan’s poisonous relationship with his father, CLOSING
TIME is the frank account of the author’s steely
determination to claw his way out of a grim fate that easily could
have seemed predestined. “Every book I read,” he
writes, “every movie I watched, every idea I assimilated
furnished yet another tool to aid me in my flight from my
father’s economic class, a class I sought not only to exit
but to disown.”

Motivated by that intense desire to escape the hellhole of his
home (“my father’s necropolis”) and even
entertaining the prospect of an early martyrdom that would lead
straight to canonization (“I wanted to be torn to shreds by
roving heathens a full decade before reaching adulthood.”),
Queenan boldly announced at age five that he wanted to enter the
priesthood. He spent his freshman year of high school at the
Maryknoll Junior Seminary in the hinterlands of northeastern
Pennsylvania. That year ended with the rector, Father Casey,
inquiring, “You weren’t thinking of coming back here
next year, were you, Queenan?” thus pronouncing a benediction
over the young man’s ecclesiastical dreams. Queenan returned
to Philadelphia’s massive (6,500 students) Cardinal Dougherty
High School, and on to Saint Joseph’s College, laying the
foundation for the writing career that would not blossom until he
reached his mid-30s.

With the same corrosive wit he applies in recounting his
father’s failings, Queenan generously credits a pair of
unusual men who helped lift him out of the slough that was his
family life. Ex-marine Len Mohr was the owner of a clothing store
Queenan describes as an “unprepossessing dump,” whose
inventory “consisted almost entirely of attire Len himself
would not have been caught dead in.” Mohr hired
eight-year-old Joe to work after school every day and 10 hours on
Saturday (paying him six dollars a week for those 20 hours), and
for the next seven years he served as a relatively sane surrogate
father, even offering to adopt his assistant and confidante at one
point. That job gave way in high school to one in an
apothecary owned by Glenn Dreibelbis (“a twenty-four-karat
oddball who navigated perilously between the shoreline of lucidity
and the shoals of lunacy”), his passion for New York City
eventually inspiring Queenan to make it his home.

For readers born in the 1950s, CLOSING TIME also offers an
entertaining nostalgia trip, providing the opportunity to recall
dreadful cultural touchstones of the time like Lawrence Welk,
Jackie Gleason’s variety show (whose faux alcoholic sidekick,
Crazy Guggenheim, infuriates Queenan to this day) and “The
First Family,” a comic record featuring a limp impersonation
of President Kennedy that Queenan’s father played incessantly
as he mourned the dead president.

But Queenan’s memoir never strays far from the toxic
relationship that festers at its core. The ultimate judgment he
renders on his father is unsparing, yet he sidesteps the trap of
demonization and somehow humanizes this profoundly flawed man whose
life was an epic poem of abject failure, concluding that “the
laundry list of things I admired about him…was surprisingly
long.” Queenan, Sr. was a ninth grade dropout who read
Fitzgerald and Hemingway, a student of history who would not
tolerate the use of profanity in his home. That same man drank away
a good portion of the money he earned when he was briefly employed
in some marginal job, occasionally leaving Joe and his three
sisters with little or nothing to eat, and subjected them to
frequent, merciless beatings. “My father’s attributes,
laudable though they might be,” Queenan concludes, “did
not alter the fact that once he took on the role of a parent, he
had wandered too far out of his depth.”

In an emotionally-charged concluding chapter and epilogue,
Queenan sums up the last two decades of his father’s life ---
what he describes as his “Bedouin phase” --- watching
from a geographic and emotional distance as the man drifted from
modest rental room to flophouse. Still, he tends to this man who
lacerated his childhood every bit as much as he did his body as his
father lies dying from cancer in 1997: “I was determined to
be at my father’s side when the end came, not because he
deserved it or would appreciate the gesture but because having a
bad father does not give anyone the right to be a bad
son.”

CLOSING TIME is filled with moments of intense pathos and
rollicking humor. Skillfully navigating the full range of human
emotions, Joe Queenan has delivered an account, artful and
heartfelt, of what it means to be a good father and a good son.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on December 27, 2010

Closing Time: A Memoir
by Joe Queenan

  • Publication Date: April 16, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 067002063X
  • ISBN-13: 9780670020638