Unstaged Irish

unstagedirish1

By Ann Conway

My father was dead and I did not miss him.
—Joe Queenan

When I say I’m writing a book about my Irish American family (the reason I’ve transitioned to occasional guest posts for Good Letters), I receive reading suggestions. First on the list is usually Frank McCourt’s Angeles Ashes, which, alas, I found unreadable.

“Why?” people cry, appalled. I see thought balloons heading my way: “You’re so mean.“

After all, McCourt was charming, funny and avuncular. But Angela’s Ashes’ semi-amusing rendition of familial neglect, starvation and death felt way too stage Irish to me, an old-fashioned term that refers to the tribe’s aggressive public joviality, which often conceals private hells of depression and drinking.

McCourt’s book seemed, despite its subject, sentimental—a trauma tale with a tidy forgiveness narrative, complete with the “closure” of which pop psychology is fond. This is not the case with Joe Queenan’s 2009 Closing Time, an uncompromising account of growing up with a brutal Irish Catholic father in a Philadelphia housing project.

Queenan is a successful freelance journalist who often writes about the Hibernian obsessions of sports and politics. It was luck, effort and a series of mentors which ushered him away from his father, who drank up his intermittent paychecks and terrorized his four kids. Queenan pere also claimed a special relationship with the divine, prompting Queenan’s characteristically pithy remark that “alcohol and Catholicism are a deadly combination,” one which had the writer sleeping with a chair against the door and a butcher knife on his night table until he left for college.

That was after he had, as a sixteen year old, finally punched his father back.

Before that, Queenan fought back emotionally and intellectually, first at parochial school, where he was encouraged by nuns, who for once, are not portrayed as caricatures. He devoured books, which he views as a working class “lethal weapon.”

Once Joe starts working (at age eight), he gains a succession of mentors, among them Len, a proud ex-Marine haberdasher and Glenn, who runs an “apothecary” in a declining Philly neighborhood and mourns his old Bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Queen renders vivid portraits of not only his bosses, but the surrogate families of eccentric regulars at the businesses.

One of the pleasures of Closing Time, despite its unsettling content, is that Queenan conveys, at least for those of us of a certain provenance, the colossal, thrilling weirdness of growing up Catholic in the fifties and early sixties. As a boy, Joe is obsessed with sainthood, so he dresses up as a priest and assembles a makeshift altar in his bedroom. He wants to become like St. John Bosco, who was beheaded at an early age and thus, says the writer, “could conceivably appear to me, an aspiring martyr, and show me the sanguinary ropes.”

The writer loves the ornate quality of old-world Catholicism; as an altar boy, ringing an intricate set of bells to mark the Holy Eucharist, he says, “Whenever I rattled the chimes, I felt transported to Samarkand or Constantinople…the elaborate device had four separate compartments, each filled with a cluster of ringers that when rattled suggested that the czar was arriving with a retinue of 350 sleighs.”

The book is full of these tribal in-jokes, rendered with blunt hilarity. Queenan’s melancholy—and there’s surprisingly little of it—is tempered by absurdity: the “monsignor with the face of a vindictive leprechaun,” the “flashy young priests who were hideously fashionable in the 60s,” the postwar tough guy lingo of “malarkey,” “bad actors,” “light in the loafers,” and taking a powder.” Perhaps because of his father’s beer-soaked piety, Queen seems to have little use for dogma of any kind, so Closing Time resists the temptation to follow yet another script, that of the “recovering Catholic,” whose childhood and youth were no fun at all, only fodder for unrelenting bitterness.

At Closing Time’s conclusion, Queenan stands at his father’s deathbed because “having a bad father does not give anyone the right to be a bad son.” He admits he feels little sorrow, for which one can hardly blame him. One wonders where God is when the tenderness of children is beaten out of them. Despite this, Queenan was hungry to learn from his many mentors, as well as books, art, and music. Thus one sees an extravagant grace in Closing Time—the ability to write about the creation of a vibrant, different life, resurrecting a vanished world without a trace of malarkey.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.