Joe Queenan has written book reviews for the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and many other periodicals, and he has written a number of books himself. His memoir CLOSING TIME, about growing up poor with an alcoholic and abusive father and manic depressive mother, was the best memoir I have ever read, and I have read quite a few. Though not as many as Queenan, I would bet, since this guy seems to have read everything ever written, all the classics (he claims anyone could read all of them in five years), plus some of the most obscure stuff I have ever, or never, heard of. He’s got a wife and kids and, frankly, reading all those books, I don’t know why they haven’t left him. And he claims to not skip any passages, which I must shamefacedly admit to doing. Not a very visual person, I am apt to skip over descriptions of anything but people. And I am not big on memoirists who spend all their time in prolix self-justification, and writers who try to use obscurity to hide an inability to think I skip out on also.
Queenan is not arrogant about all his reading (and his amazing retention of so much of it, and his ability to say intelligent things about it all). He is as likely to be generous to an author as to pan him or her. Queenan admits he could never keep up with the great Winston Churchill, who reportedly read a book a day, while also saving the world for democracy, coming up with all those witty quips, and being drunk off his ass.
So when I saw good old Joe had written ONE FOR THE BOOKS, I was intrigued. A book about reading books by a guy who does it for a living. And so I could then write a review of a book by a guy who writes book reviews. Kind of Postmodern, that, which (Postmodernism) is one of the many things Queenan has no time for.
Which is refreshing. Queenan is grumpy and I like that. CLOSING TIME was a kind of anti-EAT, PRAY LOVE (which Queenan hates, by the way), an unapologetic rant about the futility of his lost childhood and the parents who stole if from him. The forgiveness he finds in his heart for his parents is stinting and sparse, and he is honest about it. No epiphanies here. Books to him were a way out of both physical and emotional poverty, and also a way for him to feel arrogantly superior to many of those he grew up around. He is not the kind of guy to spare himself from his own acidity. He admits he used books to put off a lot of things perhaps he shouldn’t have, and that reading did not make him a better person. He also unabashedly loves books, the way they can evoke a time and place far away from our grim one, and he even credits books with holding out a hope that real life can’t.
This really is a book about books. It is not an excuse, a gimmick, a flimsy scaffold, that he uses to write another memoir. We learn that he quit drinking many years ago, but there is only one sentence about it in the whole book. We learn his wife has different tastes in reading than he does, and that he got tired of her always buying him books by or about Winston Churchill, but that is about it about her. And he doesn’t mind burning bridges here, I don’t think, as there are a lot of writers he damns outright, or damns with faint praise, so that they are never going to write a blurb for a book jacket for a book he writes.
The writing is not about Queenan. He doesn’t use his words to call attention to how bright or funny he is. He does, however, call attention to how good or bad the writing he reads is. At the same time, he concedes that sometimes, when you are in a shitty mood, you aren’t going to enjoy something, or not as much as you would otherwise. This is something I have always wanted a critic to admit—that a bad review might have as much or more to do with a messy love life or indigestion than poor plotting or wooden dialogue.
Queenan does not apologize for the “important” books he has refused to read. Early brushes with Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy put him off both. He is afraid, however, that one day all those books he spurned may “overpower me. Then, I will find myself bound, gagged and bolted to the floor in the musty library reading room, and forced to suffer through the complete works of William Styron or, if my assailants are in a particularly sadistic mood that day, all four volumes of Joseph and His Brothers.” He doesn’t apologize for never having gotten through FINNEGAN’S WAKE, or ULYSSES, for that matter, or even MIDDLEMARCH. This made me feel better, and I may never go back to PARADISE LOST again. And I won’t feel bad about it, either.
While you might expect Queenan to champion bookstores and libraries (he does, but takes them to task for stocking only popular titles), he does say some provocative things. He thinks book clubs are kind of stupid, in that they encourage a kind of consensus about a work when a good book should induce “discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.” He also says that “they pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation.”
As if that wasn’t snarky enough, listen to what he has to say about Mary McCarthy: “McCarthy overwrote and was none too subtle. She reminded me of countless peevish jazz musicians whose dazzling technique ultimately led nowhere.” I never read her, but I got a good laugh out of that anyway, since, if that description doesn’t match her, it does match many writers I have tried to read and had to put down over the years.
And Queenan welcomes the online anonymous reviewer, because they are able to at least be honest, if often wrong (at least according to Queenan): “Their courageous sniping from behind the bushes, emulating Ethan Allen and the Swamp Fox back in 1776, reaffirms that democracy functions best when you fire your musket and then run away.”
Queenan can be a bit of a snob, I guess, but he would probably be willing to own that. And he did for me what I am always looking for writers to do—he mentions a lot of writers he likes, which opens up a new world of possible reading for me. Just like SELECTED SHORTS led me to Etgar Keret, and John Irving to Robertson Davies, Queenan has convinced me to try Georges Simenon and Penelope Fitzgerald. And maybe some non English speaking authors in translation. But not too many. Like Queenan tells us Miles Davis said, “Genius is knowing what to leave out.”
© 2015 Mike Welch