Dwight Garner reviews 'Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon' by Joe Queenan.
| On certain gray days, it can feel like riffs on popular culture are all that’s left in the world. The jitterbug analysis rains down from above (academics, novelists, public intellectuals) and from below (comedians, glossy magazines, ads on the sides of buses). Having something smart to intone about, say, George Clooney’s precarious film career is more important than having something smart to intone about almost anything else.
Joe Queenan has been surfing pop’s debris-strewn waters for a couple of decades now, in books (“If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble”) and in hundreds of essays for magazines as disparate as the New Republic and TV Guide, where he’s a weekly columnist. Queenan isn’t a critic, exactly — he’s more comfortable with comic overkill than with sorting through fine distinctions. But it’s moderately high praise to note that he’s seldom less than amusing company; his sardonic, wise-ass, throwaway essays simply have more brio than those of most of his contemporaries. He’s a couch-potato potentate, a yabbo Mencken.
Queenan’s new book, “Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon,” is a high-concept slumming expedition. It’s a book about a self-described highbrow — Queenan’s an Elvis Costello fan, a Lingua Franca subscriber and a Henry James acolyte — who yanks his baseball cap around backward and elects to spend a year mucking around in the lower realms of mass culture: dining at Sizzler steakhouses, grooving to Kenny G. albums, attending Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, visiting Branson, Mo. He ruefully notes that society is “dominated by the likes of William Shatner, not William Shakespeare, and that it was basically designed for the greater glory of Richard Simmons, not Richard Thompson, and certainly not Richard Strauss.” Queenan makes a show of shucking his “haughty pretensions” and, licking his chops, dives right in.
This premise, it must be said, might be more effective if you actually cared what Queenan thinks about Henry James or Elvis Costello. But give this man his due: He operates on his own kind of manic, wildcat frequency — all riffs, all the time. Thus Michael Bolton is the “K-Mart Joe Cocker”; watching “Love Story” is what really killed Jimi Hendrix; “Cats” is “what ‘Grease’ would look like if all the cast members dressed up like KISS.” He’s also fond of devising handy little cultural rules: any performer named Kenny (Rogers, Loggins, G.) probably sucks; anyone with the surname Collins (Phil, Jackie, Joan) almost certainly sucks; any book blurbed by Stephen King definitely sucks. To remark that Queenan is infatuated with the word “suck,” by the way, would be an understatement. So it’s really saying something when he ultimately crowns John Tesh “the Prince of Suck.”
All in all, this is pretty harmless stuff. Queenan doesn’t hate everything — he finds that Sizzler provides good value, and he respects Barry Manilow’s work ethic — and there’s some fun to be had in watching him admit that he’s becoming genuinely addicted to really bad art. What’s off-putting about “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon,” though, is the rather stunning level of venom Queenan directs at the people who actually do find things to enjoy about, say, Billy Joel’s music or Robert Ludlum’s novels. (The audience at a performance of “Cats” is scorned as a bunch of “gawking midwestern huckleberries”; V.C. Andrews’ readers are “inbreds who had bought her books at the Ozark branch of Barnes & Noble”; Branson is a “Mulefuckers’ Mecca”; and a Yanni concert captures the yearnings of those poor saps who “probably scored less than one thousand on their SATs.”) Queenan’s hostility neatly illustrates how so many critics and writers have begun to deploy cultural taste as a means to satirize and humiliate people who aren’t as fortunate at they are — that is, people who don’t rent the same exalted movies at the corner Blockbuster.
“Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon” is a piece of pop ephemera about pop ephemera; it’s supposed to vanish on the tongue. But some readers may be left with a surprisingly acrid aftertaste, one that lingers in ways that Queenan probably hadn’t hoped.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor. More Dwight Garner.
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