Joe Queenan: Incurious Harbinger of Death

Pity Joe Queenan, who with his sad, bitter, and predictable essays has secured his position as the Bobby Slayton (or perhaps, more appositely, the Bobby Slayton knockoff) of the literary world. The amaroidal (or perhaps hemorrhoidal?) lout actually thinks he’s being funny with this smug piece that pillories Henry Petroski for having the effrontery to dwell at length upon the history of the toothpick. Who knew that those reckless microhistorians were the true brutes of our world? Forget sexism, racism, or even the Bush Administration. As far as Queenan is concerned, the true wrongs of the world are being perpetuated by the good professors at Duke University, the secret cabal no doubt headed with clandestine memos dispatched by Petroski and the handshake known only to a handpicked few. If you’ve ever wondered what it must be like to live such a myopic life, or to abdicate curiosity for the everyday objects that do indeed possess a hidden historical trajectory, then Queenan’s essay represents a fascinating specimen of oafish hubris and, above all, a restless determination to flaunt a presbyopic pestilence that slides across his saggy body as smoothly as a comfy counterpane clutched in desperation.

I suspect that Queenan doesn’t like ice cream very much. Much less anything at all.

This is the work of a man who is no more curious about the world than a agoraphobic reality TV show junkie. He neither addresses Petroski’s scholarship nor his shortcomings. Queenan simply declares, “So what?” Queenan is not one to ask why, nor can he tilt his pig’s head even one degree in the direction of what Petroski might be fired up about. He merely cites one passage — no more, no less — and declares the book dead, without even casual expatiation. That’ll teach those academic upstarts!

There once was a time when Queenan wrote funny and subversive pieces for Spy, but that was before he moved to Tarrytown, where 63% of households make $50,000 or more a year. Which makes you wonder about a man who is best known for the lackluster volume, Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, which even Curtis White had to conclude a few years ago was “one of the nastiest books I’ve read in some time.” Here is a small sample:

I was, if nothing else, being true to the ethos of my generation. When faced with unsettling developments like death, Baby Boomers always react in the same way: We sign up for self-improvement classes. A Baby Boomer par excellence, a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as it responded to moi. Everything I had ever learned as a Baby Boomer had oriented me in a single direction: further into myself. Now I had to face the ugly truth, not only about me, but about us: We were appalling. We had appalling values. We had appalling taste. And one of the most appalling things about us was that we liked to use appalling words like “appalling.”

No hope then for looser and more lissome definitions, a la those found within the Chambers Dictionary, much less a receptive ear upturned to stirs outside Queenan’s immediate taxonomy. What do we make of such a man? Is this guy guided by inveterate self-loathing for the tool he has become? Or maybe it’s just Queenan’s begrudging acceptance that he’s no less a part of the Establishment than Pat Boone.

Joe Queenan is a life lesson for any young critic or satirist. Be very careful about the targets you place into your crosshairs. If you are not careful, you will see everything in bitter and reckless terms and you will grow up to be another Joe Queenan, a flaccid hack devoid of joy and enthusiasm. I suppose that, as far as Tanenhaus and company are concerned, Queenan is the kind of purposeless and prehistoric piss-and-vinegar that apparently represents the intellectual discourse of our time.


  1. Thanks for the sound warning.

    My rules of thumb for satire are:

    1. Kick upwards. Mock the mighty, the rich, the self-important, the vain, the cruel and the arrogant.

    2. Break down false barriers. If someone complains that the poor are filthy and smell, point out that the rich take a crap just like everyone else; Donald Trump’s farts are not perfumed.

    3. Remember to Have Fun. If it ain’t funny, it’s failed satire.

  2. I ‘ve learned to avoid Queenan over the years,especially if he’s doing a book review. Not only does he tend to sneer at the author but in the case of fiction,will reveal major plot points that ruin the book for others. He’s not the only spoilsport to do this but I just hate it when a reviewer feels the need to stomp all over the plot surprises(even if they’re pretty obvious)just because he/she can!

    The sad thing is,Queenan used to be funny-it’s like what Marcellus Wallace said to Butch”,You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don’t.”

  3. You’re point’s well taken. And I did think that for a guy complaining about another guy writing so terribly much about the toothpick, Mr. Queenan had painted himself into an especially sticky corner: to write the piece he had to churn out an awful lot of words about the toothpick himself.

    But I’d add another caveat to anyone who’s driven to entertain or create points of interest: you’re not going hit the moon every time. No one does, not even my hero Michael Jordan.

    Plan that landing.

  4. Getting ornery in his elder years I guess. Although, from the perspective of an outsider looking at the boomers, that passage sounds dead on haha, though not particularly funny.

  5. Not having read Queenan’s review, or the toothpick book, I’m still not surprised he didn’t like it. I tried to read another of Petroski’s books on a very narrow engineering subject- the bookshelf in history. I’m sure other book geeks salivated as much as I did when they saw the cover, but Petroski wrote a very boring and rambling book, at least the first 20 pages were so. I wonder what Nicholson Baker would have written on the same topic.

  6. He’s still hilarious and a very nice person (in person) and a lot funnier than you. Have you been to Tarrytown? Old town, modest homes. Not exactly Scarsdale. And 50,000 a year? That’s probably the median income in Greenpoint. I guess the only satirists worth reading are those who live in Starrett City.

  7. What i especially loathe about Queenan, is his self-loathing against his own White Race. Specifically, his views of the “Rocky” movies. He mocks all Whites who expect a White to one day become World Heavyweight Champion. Apparently, the alledgedly hipper-than-thou Joe has been completely unaware, that over the last year,or two, that four White Russians have held all four Heavyweight titles. Hear that,Joe? It’s still possible.

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