The waggish blue-collar Philly scribe (Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country, 2004, etc.) ornaments his tough-childhood memoir with the sort of fancy writing natural to authors of Hibernian extraction.
The Queenan family, never in the chips, had a hardscrabble life in the scruffy Irish-American precincts of the City of Brotherly Love. Love was scant. Mom was a terrible cook, and Father was a terrible drunk. The youngster’s life was one of ongoing deprivation and off-brand merchandise in various tatterdemalion parishes. Queenan and his sisters couldn’t wait to vacate their hostile family encampments on the wrong side of the Schuylkill River. At 13, the besieged lad believed he had an ecclesiastical vocation, but after one year at Maryknoll Junior Seminary he abandoned the cloth. So it was on to Catholic high school, then a Catholic college. He found surrogate fathers, first in a colorful dry-goods merchant who ran a kind of urban emporium, replete with picaresque clientele, next in an oddball apothecary. Further forming his persona were various part-time jobs, including the midnight shift at a bubblegum mill. Scrambling out of the proletariat, Queenan discovered art, music and Paris. He became a man of letters, but even after he achieved his dream (“to make a living by ridiculing people”) he was still haunted by a lifelong enemy—his father. Queenan père, his son recounts, was brutal and mean, no credit to any 12-step program. The text, mostly credible, is naturally infused with the Celtic gift of gab, garnished with grand displays of highfalutin lexicon. Loquacious and rococo, it is populated by congresses of poltroons and excoriates many mangy nincompoops. Evidently Queenan resorts to his venerable thesaurus in an attempt to channel that heathen Mencken’s lexical cantrips. Fortunately, the adverbial and adjectival antics work, and the flashes of characteristic caustic wit are accompanied by some truly sweet spots.
Close to home and heart, this portrait of the artist shows Queenan at the top of his form—his best yet.