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A Fine Whine 

Occasionally, even I overlook a worthy title during the period of time proximal to its publication date. In that spirit, you, dear reader, may want to be aware of a title recently recommended to me. Like a fine wine which ages well, you should consider this 1998 book-length rant by Joe Queenan -- a fine whine, indeed.

Queenan, a humorist and social critic, has taken upon himself a task so odious that we can only be thankful to him for going there in our stead, and then telling the tale: He dived naked into the cesspool of bad popular American culture to see if it's as bad as they say. It is. Queenan did all of this so you don't have to. He is marvelously pompous, combining Dave Barry (especially his Book of Bad Songs) and Dennis Miller (some of Queenan's references are too obscure to understand, but I'm not willing to admit that, are you?), rising at times to the level of Swiftian social parody.

Throughout the book, Queenan describes a year-long quest in which he read bad literature, saw terrible movies, dined in prefab restaurants, listened to unlistenable CDs, immersed himself in recent pop psychology, sat through mind-numbing Broadway musical productions and visited Atlantic City.

Included are such dubious cultural milestones as Love Story (the movie), Billy Joel, Kenny G., Joan Collins (the author), Geraldo Rivera (the Satanic being), John Tesh (anything he does), the whole Renaissance Fair thing, and Branson, Missouri. Queenan ably recognizes the fact that some things are so bad that they are good (the camp phenomenon), and instead concentrates on items positively transcendent in their vileness.

The quest for the Holy Grails of bad popular culture can have its disappointments, and Queenan addresses those with a coined term, scheissenbedaurern, or "shit regret," the feeling one gets when something is merely boring rather than really bad. Neil Diamond, as compared to Michael Bolton, falls into this category for Queenan: "At a certain level, I had now begun to hope that everything I encountered would suck in a megasucky way, and was honestly disappointed when some proved merely cruddy. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, I wanted to gaze directly into the abyss, to stare at the horror."

Like shooting fish in a sardine can, the book is filled with cheap and easy shots, and is hilarious. Some examples:

"Until I saw Billy Madison and Tommy Boy, I'd always thought the three scariest words in the English language were "Starring Dan Ackroyd."

Queenan characterizes "author" Mary Higgins Clark as "a literary factory worker."

Another "author," James Michener, describes a very pretentious writing technique, giving himself credit where none is due. Queenan's response: "Explaining this concept to an audience that has to move its lips while reading his books is a little bit scary, like trying to explain cold fusion to a precocious hamster. And Michener's mentioning himself in the same breath as Balzac seemed a bit like Chris Darden mentioning himself in the same breath as Clarence Darrow."

Queenan on film: "One thing that I admire about films like Striptease is that they serve as powerful reminders that on any given day Hollywood has the potential to release the worst film in history."

The book is a little longer than it should have been. Queenan is repetitive at times, resorting often to the following tired formula: X is so bad that it makes the terrible Y look like the wonderful (hip, credible, macho, etc.) Z in comparison (for example: the score of Grease makes Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" sound like Metallica).

Furthermore, Queenan's concept is perhaps less genuine than described. References to the Mod Squad, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Huey Lewis, as points of comparison, reveal that Queenan is not the bad-popular-culture neophyte he would lead us to believe.

And, even the hippest of us have some guilty pleasures, very unfairly skewered by Queenan. What's wrong with the Turtles? I happen to enjoy Walker, Texas Ranger (it's camp! I swear!). Mel Brooks movies are very funny, and the song "Piano Man" has some genuine emotional content, if you listen closely enough.

Those criticisms aside, this book is like a guilty pleasure for us culture snobs. Much like my personal cure for low self-esteem (whenever I'm feeling down, I visit Wal-Mart, after midnight: I am guaranteed to feel smart, good-looking, and possessed of hygiene that is above reproach), Queenan provides much fodder for the culturally elevated. You will come away from this reading experience realizing how excellent your taste is. This beats any self-help book, even Chicken Soup for the Elite.

And if you're interested in reading Queenan's more recent work, Hyperion has just released his twisted take on the pursuit of human virtue, My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search, not yet reviewed but sure to appeal to anyone who has ever gagged at the patchouli-scented clichs of the New Age movement.

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