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Friday, November 23, 2012

“Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country”, by Joe Queenan

256 pages, Henry Holt & Co., ISBN-13: 978-0805069808

Joe Queenan, the acerbic satirist on everything from Hollywood films to sports fandom, takes a crack at travel literature with his new book, Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country. Ever the sly wordsmith, a look at the dust jacket depicts the author (four of him actually) crossing a road (Abbey, perhaps?) in a homage to one of England's greatest exports, the Beatles. Four poses? A nod to the Royals? Four Queenan Country?

Queenan Country doesn't just discuss the difficulties in traveling around this ancient civilization. The Philadelphia-born and raised Irishman decries the necessity of torturing American schoolchildren with the works of Thomas Hardy, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Jane Austen, among others: “At a very early age, I became aware that Great British Literature breaks down into three broad groups: books that are very depressing, books in which nothing happens, and books that are incomprehensible.” Sacrilege purveyors of fine fiction might bellow, but this is what Queenan does best: pull the rug out from under those he deems to be pulling the wool over our eyes, be it traditionally important writings, cinema, or history. For example: Why, he posits, does a nation that prides itself on civility seem to have so many historical characters that have employed the most horrid examples of torture (see Braveheart, aka William Wallace)? Along the way, he also pokes fun at British cuisine, entertainment, soccer thugs, and the unfathomable logic of public transportation.

Queenan makes no bones about his avocation as a curmudgeon: “I am a crass American and I rather enjoy being one,” he proudly declares. At one point, he compares his latest work to that of Paul Theroux: “During his travels, [he] visited an almost unbroken chain of comatose little towns, and seems to have encountered every bigoted, stupid, parsimonious, or boorish person in the United Kingdom…Congenitally miserable myself, a writer whose sole source of income derives from shooting large, evil fish in a small, morally neutral barrel, this was my kind of reading.” To be sure, Queenan meets various cheap, mean, or clueless citizens. Were they the only ones he encountered? Probably not, but he has always been the sort whose philosophy seems to be, “If you don't have anything nice to say, say it anyway because readers love to hear that kind of stuff.” One potentially charming story, in which he finds himself searching for the Beatles' old residence, turns out to be a tale of deception at the hand of a duplicitous cab driver.

Queenan's wife is English-born, so he travels back to the motherland on occasion and sees things from a non-touristy point of view. The small town where his in-laws reside is described in the dreariest terms (as is most of the country, except on the rare occasion where the sun shines for several consecutive seconds). For all his tough-guy posturing, he does show small pieces of sensitivity. At the conclusion of Queenan Country he describes the sadness he felt as he witnessed the funeral of the Queen Mother, shortly before his return stateside: “Standing in the park as the drone of bagpipes receded into the distance, I was reassured by the thought that there would always be Highlanders, there would always be Coldstream Guards, there would always be the queen, there would always be an England. The alternative was simply not acceptable.”

Maybe he's not such a tough guy after all.

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