In his review for the New York Times Book Review, James McManus wrote that Closing Time is likely to intensify whatever opinion readers already hold about Joe Queenan. This seemed true for critics, too, who were sharply divided about the book. Some saw it as unflinchingly honest—a memoir of Irish life in America on par with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (which, curiously, Queenan panned). But others saw it as a hopelessly cynical, unforgiving, and indulgent memoir—self-pitying in just the way Queenan says the rest of Americans have come to be. Indeed, on the basis of these divergent reactions, the main reason to read Closing Time might not be to enjoy it but to find out if you are the type of person who can.
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After eviscerating everyone from filmmakers to sports fans, cultural critic and humorist Queenan takes the hatchet to himself in this memoir of growing up poor in Philadelphia. The book is dominated by Queenan’s Irish Catholic father, the “lunatic-in-chief” who routinely loses several jobs per year and takes out his frustrations with copious amounts of booze and violent strappings of his brood. It is this relationship that frames the rest of Queenan’s youth, from the part-time job supervisors who become surrogate fathers to the misguided stab at seminary school as a means to escape the belt. Along the way, Queenan catalogs poverty with a specificity that is nearly exhausting; there’s no romance here, only the banal and frequently hilarious chronicling of the indignity of off-brand Fig Newtons and generic versions of hit records. Queenan never met a synonym he didn’t like (in under three pages, a jail is a hoosegow, calaboose, slammer, and pokey), but this loquaciousness evokes the ludicrous nature of his upbringing while providing humor few others could bring to such dark material. As is often the case with memoirs, Queenan’s latter years are less riveting, but his adolescence will have readers crying tears of both sorrow and hilarity. --Daniel Kraus