Joe Queenan is a very funny writer. Every one of his books that I have read, I have enjoyed. He often brings his wit to the entertainment industry but also attacks pop culture, especially those aspects of it that he finds truly atrocious. In Queenan Country, Queenan takes on Britain - but not in the way you might think. He married an Englishwoman back in the 1970s and has thus made many trips to England to see relatives. However, he has not really experienced all that Britain has to offer as he has done the same thing every visit. He decides that he must make a solo pilgrimage, without his wife or any other family, and immerse himself in British culture. Will it survive? Will he finally be able to truly understand the British mindset? This is that story.
Queenan obviously has great affection for Britain even as he is not averse to criticizing the culture for what he feels are its faults. This affection shows through in many passages, from the chapter on British literature to the wonderful day he had after taking a spontaneous late-night train ride. He’s also very complimentary about the British customs, such as always offering a guest something to eat. Sometimes the affection shines through the writing, even when he’s criticizing. Other times, he just comes out and says it.
Queenan covers a load of topics in this book (“It is not a travel book per se, as travel books are dull.”) Instead of doing the typical travel-book style, he talks about various aspects of British culture as they relate to where he goes. He begins by discussing the British as a people, starting by saying that the term “British” has no precise meaning. He gets into a discussion about national identity, morphing into the different ways that the British treat their legends, compared to Americans. This is embodied in his quest to rehabilitate Paul McCartney. Queenan goes on a tour of Beatles country, taken by a rather unique cab driver who makes Queenan’s day with wild stories but ends up altering Queenan’s view of the whole thing. Included in this chapter are asides about British cathedrals (one of which he visits to get the “cultural compulsories” out of the way before doing the things that truly interest him).
This is just one of the examples of the fluid way that Queenan writes. He can go off on a tangent occasionally, but he always ends up relating that tangent back to what he was talking about in the first place. It’s truly marvelous to see him start off talking about weird British history and then move on to a story about Paul McCartney. He can begin talking about the wonders of Scotland and then quickly go off on British theater as he takes in a play in Edinburgh. He even refers back to previous books, as he references both Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (when he talks about something not sucking as much as he thought it would) and True Believers (where he reiterates a story about a rugby match). This time, he doesn’t insult anything that I really like, but even if he ends up doing it, he writes with such panache that you can’t help but laugh with him anyway. There are plenty of acerbic comments that aren’t about the British, too. He has quite a few references to Americans (“By contrast, even the most appalling Americans are comfortable with themselves. Americans don’t mind being appalling.”), but also the French, Japanese, and others. Of course, he saves most of his comments for the British. In fact, one of his chapter titles is “10 Things I Hate About Britain. No, Make that 20.” Even most of these, however, are things that I would think a lot of British people probably hate too, so it’s not a slam against the people.
The most interesting thing about Queenan Country is that you just might learn something. Queenan talks about history, giving some facts that not everybody may be aware of. He visits a number of historical sites (one of my favorites was his visit to a piece of Hadrian’s Wall), and in so doing gives some historical insight to the whole thing. Any true historian will already know most of it, but it would still be informative to those who haven’t really paid much attention to history. He does the same thing for almost everything British, which informed me a lot, too. I’ve never been to Britain (though I’d like to go someday), so I loved hearing about all the different places Queenan went. He wasn’t afraid to go into the less touristy spots, either. He went to a concert put on by an Eagles tribute band, Talon, and actually had some nice things to say about them.
The cover of the book is a nice homage to Abbey Road, with Queenan fulfilling all the parts (of course!). I hesitate to admit that the pun in the title completely flew over my head until I was almost done with the book, but now that I have noticed it, it’s very clever. All in all, the book is quite a treat. It’s less acerbic than some of Queenan’s other books, so even if that has turned you off of his books in the past, you might want to give this one a scan at the bookstore. Even so, it’s still as witty as any of Queenan’s other books, and I’m finding that I like it more and more as I think back on it to write this review. With more love than readers are used to from Queenan, Queenan Country is among his best.