When he was a young boy growing up in the South Philadelphia projects, Irish American journalist and cultural critic Joe Queenan, 59, spent most of his nights cowering in terror from his father’s studded leather belt.
“As a child I felt locked in a house with this scary guy,” he said. “When he hit us half the time he didn’t know what he was doing.
“I could never understand why he needed to use a belt. He was this big guy. I grew up thinking one of these days I’ll be big and strong and I’ll kill him.”
Night after night his father, a half-coherent drunk, consumed with bitterness and rage, lashed out at someone five times smaller than himself. And as bad as the physical assaults were, the hateful things he would say to his wife and kids was often worse.
“My father liked to remind us, pretty much constantly, that no matter how hard we tried we’d never amount to a pimple on an elephant’s rear,” says Queenan. “Yet tellingly, like so many Irish American men, he still had that amazing ability to make his victims feel sorry for him.”
Queenan, a celebrated satirist, now lives in Tarrytown, New York, with his wife Francesca and his children Bridget and Gordon. He has called himself a “full time son of a bitch” who has “never deviated from his chosen career as a sneering churl.” Formerly an editor at Forbes, Queenan has published his stories in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue and New York Magazine.
How Queenan escaped his desperately impoverished childhood to become a distinguished man of letters is the subject of his remarkable new memoir, the raw but beautifully written "Closing Time."
Appropriately, considering the many horror tales he recounts, Queenan forgoes his usual satirical tone in favor of a fairly straightforward portrait of his harsh upbringing in the South Philly projects, showing how a series of kindly mentors and surrogate fathers were the ones who saved him from a dead end life.
Says Queenan, “Everyone who is saved is saved because someone tosses them a lifeline, or in my case, numerous lifelines. It may be an employer, it may be a teacher, it may be a priest or a parole officer. But as the events of Good Friday make clear, no one is saved by himself.”
Queenan father’s parents were from Cork and they came over during the First World War, but a shadow surrounds the family origins. Queenan’s parents didn’t talk that much about Ireland and weren’t curious about it.
“That’s because they grew up in the Depression. They had no connection to anything that had come before them, and they had no connection to anything that happened after them. They were just sort of floating in their own space,” he says.
“I don’t know what part of Ireland my mother’s parents came from because she was completely uninterested in anything that didn’t involve her. She didn’t talk at all about what part of Ireland her parents had come from. It was as if all of that had happened to somebody else.”
In South Philly, Queenan was stripped of any lingering illusions he might have had about life. He was living in a broken down housing project with his parents and three sisters, wearing off-brand clothes and eating off-brand food due to the erratic employment record of his occasionally charming but always terrifying father, an emotional terrorist whose alcoholism led to petrifying outbursts, physical violence and even late night chats with the Lord Himself.
“To escape it I went inside my head. I read 'Kidnapped,' 'Treasure Island,' any book that had the theme of escape and travel. I also found a series of mentors and surrogate fathers in the neighborhood who saved my life,” Queenan says.
He had never thought of pursuing a career as a writer because he didn’t know anyone who had. That quickly changed, however. At St. Joseph’s University his professors learned he had a distinct talent for writing, particularly satire.
He did so well at it that they encouraged him with an extraordinary opportunity – the offer of a free trip to Paris at the age of 21. Accepting, he took his first step toward a better, more expansive life and career.
“When I went to France it was an adventure. I had never been in an airplane before. The Eiffel Tower knocked me out,” he recalls.
“But when I went back my parents didn’t ask me anything about my trip. They had no interest in it and no empathy. It didn’t pertain to them, so it had no reality for them.
“They never experienced joy through their children. My mother couldn’t do it because she was damaged. My father couldn’t do it because he was jealous of us.”
Luckily Queenan had kindly neighbors who gave him odd jobs and – better yet – the academic perspective that he was sorely lacking. You can escape all this, they told him. Study hard, they told him, get out of the working class.