The Piercing Wit of Oscar Wilde, the Satirical Fearlessness of Jonathan Swift, and the Cheer of Grumpy Cat

This isn’t what was meant by the line “[i]t was a pleasure to burn,” but a burn from Joe Queenan is a pleasure indeed. Imagine the piercing wit of Oscar Wilde, the satirical fearlessness of Jonathan Swift, and, for you young ones, the cheer of Grumpy Cat, and you’ll understand why Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan’s America is high in the running for the funniest nonfiction title on my shelf.

It’s a critic’s tour through the worst of his culture—awful music, bad TV, crappy movies. “I would furlough that part of my brain that had long revered the rare, precious, and beautiful, and instead zero in on the hopelessly plebian,” Queenan swears; two pages later he’s at a matinee of Cats.

The material itself is not the point. If it was, I wouldn’t love Queenan’s other books, and, let’s face it, taking potshots at the Michael Boltons of the world is no challenge in and of itself. (Confession time: I actually enjoy quite a few things Queenan savages, including, I’ll admit it, Cats.) The magic lies in something purer than having one’s opinions validated: it’s in how Queenan exemplifies the old adage that writing is finding just the right word for the right situation. Shamefully few writers can simultaneously spark an aesthetic frisson and excoriate Branson, Missouri.

He’s a man who appreciates words: “I was dazzled by the Olive Garden’s alchemical use of the English language, predicated on the theory that if you used lots of colorful wording to describe your grim fare, it could magically transform a repellent morass of what appeared to be congealed mucus into a truly wondrous zuppa toscana.” At least six words in that sentence, most of them cruel ones, light up the vicious corners of my brain with glee. Even the scansion’s a joy: the short stops of “grim fare” form a juicy anticipatory pause before the rest of the roller-coaster sentence, and doesn’t “repellent morass” just have the texture of a sickening soup?

He sums up his encounter with a middle-aged loser in Atlantic City with a line I’d die to use in conversation: “I was getting the high hat from a low roller.”

He tosses out combinations like “hypnotically abhorrent” or “festively stupid,” and the chemical clash of modifiers conjures up an electric, curmudgeonly beauty.

Witness his description of an unexpectedly agreeable trip to Sizzler: “Inexpensive, plentiful, and, with the exception of the pallid Malibu chicken, surprisingly edible, the Sizzler was a big hit with . . . my two children, who were fast tiring of impaling themselves on Dad’s Catherine wheel of mordant irony.” I love this playful sentence, with its wild words slapped back-to-back (“pallid Malibu” is strangely mellifluous) and its shift from pleasant family dining into all things drolly dark. Queenan’s felicity with language rivals a top chef’s use of spices, mixing unlike flavors to coax out something new—perhaps an unfitting metaphor to praise his condemnation of bland Sizzler poultry. When Queenan confesses he’s become “addicted to twaddle,” if you laugh because “twaddle” is a funny word that no one seems to use, you’re my kind of person. In the three-word phrase “addicted to twaddle”, the first two words are nothing special but the third comes out of nowhere and sets the page on fire. Isn’t this the sort of magic every writer strives for?

And if so, is there any easier way to arrive at such fabulous phrases than sitting through Yentl?

Adam Bertocci is a filmmaker, screenwriter, author, accidental playwright, tasteless humorist and apparent polymath. He’s also the author of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.