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Considering how minuscule were the circulations of both Spy and Movieline, the magazines for which he wrote, I would imagine that most folks were first exposed to Joe Queenan, as I was, on Imus in the Morning.  He's absolutely hilarious there : his sarcastic style is ideally suited to the format and he's got Imus continually directing him to new topics at which to spew venom.  But after reading several of his books--all of which I've liked, but not loved--I'm beginning to wonder if he doesn't need a better editor to bring some form to his very funny observations.

Queenan's latest book, Balsamic Dreams, is intended to be an indictment of the Baby Boomer Generation, of which he is an embarrassed member.  He's operating in what Norman Schwarzkopf might call a target rich environment here, and almost inevitably much of what he has to say is very amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny in places.  But somehow, it's not as good a book as it should be.

There are a couple of problems.  For one thing, he's really written a series of interconnected essays rather than one sustained indictment.  This makes for some rather distracting disorganization and some truly annoying repetition.  Worse, he periodically himself gets distracted from the task at hand.  I thoroughly enjoyed his attacks on the so-called Greatest Generation and on Gen-X, but in these sections of the book he's essentially defending the Boomers, rather than garroting them, which is what we'd prefer.

The other problem isn't so much structural, it's ideological.  Queenan's thesis is that the Boomers started out well, but then sold out.  He repeatedly gives them credit for "the Freedom Riders. Woodstock, Four Dead in Ohio, driving Nixon from office, Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy", but then says that after that they became selfish, self-absorbed, and obsessed with their material well being.  Which is all well and good, except that : Midnight Cowboy sucked; as he himself says, the Boomers as they exist in our minds are the sons and daughters of the Post-WWII white middle class, and as such weren't a significant part of the Civil Rights movement; Woodstock was the epitome of the generation's irresponsible self-indulgence which was then conflated into some kind of meaningful statement of peace, love, and brotherhood; and both driving Nixon from office and getting gunned down at Kent State were fundamentally related to their desire to avoid service in Vietnam, which, though Queenan largely avoids the topic, is the primary crime they have to answer for.  Basically, he's completely wrong about whether his generation was ever worthwhile, and this too seems a function of his natural inclination to defend his own : the Boomers didn't decline over time, they began badly.

Oddly enough, the best moments in the book come when Queenan is making serious points, rather than comic ones.  At one point, when discussing the total farce that Boomers have turned funerals into, with songs, multiple insipid eulogies, and readings from inane fare like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he says that :

    Because we Baby Boomers believe in nothing, we end up acting like we believe in everything.

Elsewhere, while visiting a dying friend, Queenan is approached by a woman he doesn't know who clearly wants to hug him, but avoids her :

    After an awkward silence, she spoke : 'It's a shame that men have so much trouble showing their
    emotions,' she whispered.  It was classic Baby Boomer feminism.  What she meant was : 'You
    probably have the same feelings that I do, but you can't possibly show them, because that would
    necessitate revealing your feminine side, which this hideously repressive society prohibits you from
    doing.'  It was also classic Baby Boomer behavior in that it capitalized on an inappropriate,
    emotionally devastating moment to launch a skirmish in the ongoing gender wars.

    'Actually, I have no trouble showing my emotions,' I told her.  'These are my emotions.  I'm sad
    that my friend is dying, and that's why I look so sad.  If my friend wasn't dying, I would probably
    be smiling and look a lot happier.  I think a lot of men work this way.'

    'Have a nice life,' she replied.


Even here though, when he's truly nailed what's most wrong with the Baby Boomers, he fails to develop these observations into a unified and coherent brief against them, because his objections seem to be mostly stylistic, rather than moral.  He seems more concerned with how cheesy the funerals are and how silly the hugging is, than with the underlying causes of these behaviors.  But the Baby Boomers aren't evil because they are gauche or tacky or melodramatic; they're evil because they don't believe in anything but themselves and as Queenan says when discussing Bill Clinton's capacity to show empathy without ever actually sharing a feeling, "...they don't actually care what other people do as long as they say the right things...."

There is an essential hollowness at the core of this generation.  The fact that they have no beliefs, the way they display emotion without feeling it, the way they tried to turn simple draft avoidance into a great crusade, the way they have warped social standards to indulge their behaviors, ...all of these these things should be piled one on top of another by the prosecution as it makes its case that they are the most destructive generation in history.  But Queenan, notorious for his scorched earth style and willingness to take no prisoners, backs off, and the book suffers because of it.

It's too bad, because there's much here that's funny and wickedly observant, and with a stronger editor to keep him on track, the book might have been great.  As is, it's fun, but somewhat disappointing.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Joe Queenan (3 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -Joe Queenan's Contrition Web Page
    -Eat It Raw: The Joe Queenan Directory (GusWorld)
    -BOOK SITE : Balsamic Dreams :  A Short But Self-important History of the Baby Boomer Generation by Joe Queenan (Henry Holt)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of : Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue: Lagoon Joe Queenan's America
    -ESSAY: Rocky Ages: Round six: Sylvester Stallone vs. reality. (JOE QUEENAN, December 19, 2002, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Xtreme Investing (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 03.19.01)
    -ESSAY : Lighten Up, America (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 10.09.00)
    -ESSAY : Fear & Greed (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 11.13.00)
    -ESSAY : Gored (And Ignored) By The Bull (Joe Queenan, Forbes ASAP, 04.03.00)
    -ESSAY : If You've Got Dough, Act Like It (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 10.11.99)
    -ESSAY : I believe in yesterday (Joe Queenan, Forbes Global, 03.22.99)
    -ESSAY : Five Crappiest Tech Jobs (Joe Queenan, Forbes ASAP, 11.27.00)
    -ESSAY : Vinnie van Gogh is right at home here (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 11.16.98)
    -ESSAY : Don't worry, be happy (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 10.12.98)
    -ESSAY : Why can't billionaires grow up?  (Joe Queenan, Forbes Magazine, 10.13.97)
    -ESSAY : The Civil War Sucks! (Joe Queenan, March 1994 Spy magazine)
    -ESSAY : In Defense of Dave (Joe Queenan)
    -ESSAY : Unusual Tattoos (Joe Queenan)
    -ESSAY : This time, it's personal :Once just the goofy dimwit, Keanu Reeves finally looks as if he's playing with a full deck as a vindictive killer in The Watcher. (Joe Queenan, February 24, 2001,The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW : Gone in 60 Seconds : Isn't larceny grand? :Jerry Bruckheimer and Nicolas Cage always make a winning combination. Joe Queenan clocks the latest fast-cars-big-stars-big-budget blockbuster (July 28, 2000,The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW : The Apartment : Shooting the works :Depressed about going back to your desk? There's othing more harmful to your happiness than watching office-based movies in January (Joe Queenan, January 6, 2001, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of How to Be Good  By NICK HORNBY (JOE QUEENAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of NANCY REAGAN The Unauthorized Biography. By Kitty Kelley (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  BROTHERS NO MORE By William F. Buckley Jr.  (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE HIPPOPOTAMUS By Stephen Fry  (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HOLLYWOOD KIDS By Jackie Collins  (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :  PRIZZI'S MONEY By Richard Condon (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  HELL OF A RIDE Backstage at the White House Follies, 1989-1993. By John Podhoretz (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PLUTO, ANIMAL LOVER By Laren Stover  (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BLOW How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million With the Medellin Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All. By Bruce Porter (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE IMMORTALS By Michael Korda (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RAPTOR By Gary Jennings (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of NEEDFUL THINGS By Stephen King (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TAKING THE WHEEL Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. By Virginia Scharff (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of VITAL SIGNS By Robin Cook (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of GOOD OMENS : The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of  Agnes Nutter, Witch.   By Neil Gaiman and  Terry Pratchett (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lloyd: What Happened A Novel of Business. By Stanley Bing (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MY STORY By Sarah, the Duchess of York, with Jeff Coplon (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE WOMAN AND THE APE By Peter Hoeg (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SUSPECTS By Thomas Berger (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The World on Blood By Jonathan Nasaw (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE LAST PUMPKIN PAPER By Bob Oeste (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Sick Puppy By Carl Hiaasen (Joe Queenan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Without a Doubt by Marcia Clark with Teresa Carpenter (Joe Queenan, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum (Joe Queenan, American Spectator)
    -PROFILE : of Michael Fumento : Straight Talk about AIDS (Joe Queenan
Forbes Magazine, June 26, 1989)
    -ESSAY : Points Unknown : Why you will watch the Super Bowl. (Joe Queenan, Jan. 23, 1997, Salate)
    -ESSAY : Diary (Joe Queenan, Oct. 19, 1996, Slate)
    -ESSAY : Pollock Jokes (Joe Queenan, 1/99, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY : Close, but no Cigar (Joe Queenan, 12/98, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY : A SPECIAL, INANELY ELABORATE SPY EASTER PRANK (Andy Aaron and Joe Queenan, SPY Magazine, April 1992)
    -ESSAY : Gullible's Travels : Venture to exotic lands. Find cool companies. Buy them (Joe Queenan, The Industry Standard, February 01 2001)
    -ESSAY : SERVICE WITH BILE : Traveling first-class isn't always so suite (Joe Queenan, Success, December 01 1998)
    -INTERVIEW : A conversation with Joe Queenan : America's nastiest funny writer hates boomers and has given up trying to be nice (Josh Karp, July 2001, Salon)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Joe Queenan (WBUR)
    -INTERVIEW : Lone Gunman : Joe Queenan, America's Funniest Character Assassin (Stuart Wade, Austin Chronicle)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Author Joe Queenan (August 8, 1998, Whadda ya know, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Joe Queenan ( February 5, 2000 , Whadda ya know, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Joe Queenan.  (Originally aired on July 28, 1998, The Connection)
    -INTERVIEW : with Joe Queenan (Book Reporter,  April 7, 2000)
    -INTERVIEW : with Joe Queenan (CitySearch au, 2/20/00)
    -DISCUSSION : CUTTHROAT ISLAND  : As Survivor mesmerizes the country with castaways' spats - and all those rats - TV Guide asks a panel of experts who will be the last man or woman standing. (TV Guide)
    -PROFILE : If You're Reading This, You're in the Wrong Part of the Bookshop : Joe Queenan has been publishing books here for a decade, yet despite being one of the funniest writers in America as yet he's still to go stellar here. LOUIS BARFE pulls back the veil on the Queenan universe and introduces the man who was Mickey Rourke for a day (Book Ends)
    -ARCHIVES : "queenan" (Forbes)
    -ARCHIVES : "queenan" (Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "Joe Queenan" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "Joe Queenan" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of THE UNKINDEST CUT How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card. By Joe Queenan (1996) (JULIA PHILLIPS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (JOHN D. THOMAS, Creative Loafing)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (Terry Lawson,  Knight-Ridder Newspapers)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (Adam Mazmanian, Library Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (BookWire)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut and If You're Talking to Me (A. Bennett Howe, Film Written)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (David Drayton, Toronto Eye)
    -REVIEW : of Unkindest Cut (a.d amorosi, City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of My Goodness A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood. By Joe Queenan (2000) (Bruce McCall, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of My Goodness A Cynic's Short-Lived Search for Sainthood. By Joe Queenan (Jam! Book Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of My Goodness  (David Smillie, Book Ideas)
    -REVIEW : of My Goodness (Maxim Online)
    -REVIEW : of CONFESSIONS OF A CINEPLEX HECKLER Celluloid Tirades and Escapades. By Joe Queenan (2000) (Michael E. Ross, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Confessions (David Smillie, Book Ideas)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon by Joe Queenan (1998) (Lance Gould, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon by Joe Queenan (John Gross, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon by Joe Queenan (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon by Joe Queenan (HEATHER MALLICK -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster (Susan Wickstrom, Willamette Week)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster (DAVID DAVIDAR , The Hindu)
    -REVIEW : of Red Lobster (Rex Roberts, Insight)
    -REVIEW : of IF YOU'RE TALKING TO ME, YOUR CAREER MUST BE IN TROUBLE Movies, Mayhem, and Malice. By Joe Queenan (1994 (Hal Goodman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of If You're Talking to Me (Manuela Hoelterhoff, wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW : of IMPERIAL CADDY The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else (1992) (Molly Ivins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing (Richard von Busack, Metro Active Books)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Joe Queenan (Imdb)
    -INFO : Twelve Steps to Death  (1995) (Imdb)

    -ESSAY : The knock on negativity (Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic, February 27, 2000)

    -ESSAY : Curse of the hippie parents : Benign neglect and living-room-floor orgies do not a healthy childhood make (Sarah Beach, August 2001, Salon)
    -ESSAY : The Worst Generation Ever : The boomers have a lot to do with the distressing Sixties legacy (Diane Alden, Spintech)