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.
One man in particular, the owner of a local haberdashery, gave him advice and encouragement, becoming a stand-in dad.
“My dad wasn’t going anywhere because he had a dishonorable discharge from the Army. He went AWOL when both of his parents died within a very short period of time. He wanted to go to either his mother or father’s funeral and this was in time of war, so he was lucky he wasn’t shot,” Queenan says.
“They stuck him in prison down south for three years until he was finally released in 1948, under a general amnesty. After that he was always going to have a tough time because having a dishonorable discharge meant having trouble getting a good job.
“He did have a friend who got him a low level white collar job. It was the only one he ever had – he was a draughtsman’s assistant. But a recession in 1958 meant he lost his job and they could no longer pay for their house. We lost our house, and that just set in motion the cycle that kept on spiraling down.”
Queenan listens to the moneymen on cable news talking about the subprime scandals as they were purely a matter of economics. But he knows that’s not how it feels, though.
“When a person loses their house they lose a part of their heart. Editorial writers may say suck it up, it’s good for the economy, but it burns you, deeply,” he says.
“For a man to lose his house in that late 1950s era was totally emasculating. You really were down for the count. It followed him around forever after that. After we moved to the housing projects, then he became dangerous. He started to go though jobs and drink very heavily.”
Queenan never knew what was going to set his father off, so he spent his childhood walking on eggshells. “Every single day waking up wondering what’s it going to be today? Is he going to lose his job? Is he going to hit us?
“When he came home and he didn’t have liquor on his breath it was like Christmas. We used to think if he could just stop drinking he would be a fantastic person. But over the course of time you realize that this is the person he is: Jekyll and Hyde start to merge. They get to the point where they’re beyond salvation.
“It didn’t matter to me that my father eventually stopped drinking. It was too late. I didn’t care one way or the other. It was great that he did it. But it didn’t make any difference to me.”
Queenan has made several trips to Ireland, once with his mother, and more recently as a participant in the Kate O’Brien summer school, where he read from his published works to his Irish fan base. But his parents’ odd refusal to discuss their Irish past closed a door that might have stayed open.
"Closing Time" doesn’t have a heart-warming finale, where resentments are aired and forgiven. On the contrary, Queenan is ruthless. “I wanted it to be to be clear that this was war,” he says.
"Closing Time" will be published by Penguin next month.