On a recent episode of the hit cable drama “Rescue Me,” the Irish-American firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) attends his father’s funeral. In a subsequent fantasy sequence, Leary takes an ax to the old man’s coffin. Clearly, father and son had some unresolved issues—and the Gavins are not alone.
Irish fathers—in movies, books, memoirs and more—are often a disturbingly flawed group.
There is Frank McCourt’s dad, Malachy, from Angela’s Ashes. Movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “The Brothers McMullen” are set in motion by abusive fathers. And in literature by such titans as Eugene O’Neill and James Joyce, fathers range from scheming to tyrannical.
Add Joe Queenan’s father to this notorious roster. In Closing Time, the humorist and author of nearly 10 books (including Balsamic Dreams), takes a dark look back at his abusive, alcoholic father and his youth in the projects of Philadelphia.
That Queenan survived a childhood spent under the fist of his father is astounding. How he emerged with a sense of humor and decency, not to mention a bellyful of (more or less controlled) rage, is the subject of this book.
Queenan’s dad was abusive because his own “father had been beastly to him, abusive in the generally horrific way that Irish males often are to their sons.” Also, “he had grown up in the Great Depression.”
Not surprisingly, Queenan spends much time talking about being poor and being Irish, though he has no interest whatsoever in any therapeutic “answers” that might help him understand what he had to endure.
Closing Time’s most provocative moments may be when Queenan moves from the sad particularities of his own impoverished youth to the subject of poverty in general.
“Poverty is a lifestyle, a philosophy, a modus vivendi, an agglomeration of bad habits, which is why nobody who has ever been poor physically ever stops being poor emotionally,” Queenan writes. “The once-poor simply become masters of disguise…trying to keep a straight face while someone talks about low self-esteem.”
Queenan is an unapologetic ranter, and there are passages in Closing Time that will make some readers squirm. (“Poor people behave stupidly because poverty is a finishing school where children learn to be stupid.”) But his refusal to romanticize poverty, his clear-eyed description of all of poverty’s consequences, is refreshing. By the time Joe Queenan was born, the family was already on a downward spiral. They eventually lose their home and move into public housing.
“Three things kept us going through these wilderness years: the Catholic Church, the generosity of [a] few relatives…and the public library.”
It is tempting to see young Joe’s fledgling interest in books and ideas as just another way to aggravate his blue- collar Dad. But as Queenan makes clear, his father, for all his flaws, valued the written word. Queenan even took dictation when his father decided to write one of his famously eloquent letters to a newspaper.
Perhaps that is why Queenan, along with his sisters, became excellent students. Joe even decides to become a priest. He enrolls in Maryknoll Junior Seminary, which does not lead him, ultimately, to fulfill his vocation, but it does get him out of Philly for the first time.
Queenan then sets his sights on getting accepted into St. Joseph’s College (in part because of the “abiding allure of the Society of Jesus”). While Queenan is intellectually growing, however, his father is still drinking and seething.
There are two shocking scenes near the end of Closing Time that permanently change the nature of the author’s relationship with his father. Perhaps they could have been explored in greater depth, though it must be added that one thing you take away from the book is that exploration in no way leads to explanation or understanding; nor should it.
By the time he is in college, Queenan develops a passion for music and French culture. He spends a glorious year in Paris, falls in and out of love with girls who share his artistic interests and, later, comes to his father’s side when the old man—“who has been drinking since he was thirteen and smoking since he was ten”—finally succumbs to cancer.
Queenan, though, is not interested in forgiving. He is exhausted and simply wants to move on. “My father was a nightmare from which his family needed to awake,” he writes.
What is strongest overall about Closing Time is Queenan’s voice, his astounding lack of sentimentality, his ability to find humor in nearly any bleak situation. The book loses some steam, though, when Queenan’s focus shifts from his father to other, more positive male figures in his life. Looming over all of this is Queenan’s elusive mother, a hard-working, persistent woman, whom the reader cannot help but want to learn more about. Then again, given what she had to endure, Queenan’s mother probably deserves a book of her own.
Finally, given Queenan’s intellectual evolution, it might have been interesting to hear him reflect on the many published stories that resemble his. From “Studs Lonigan” to “Saturday Night Fever,” the urban Catholic male and his suffocating environment is an enduring narrative that transcends eras and ethnicities.
Still, Closing Time is easily one of the most refreshingly honest, even brave, memoirs to appear in recent years.