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Red Lobster Sizzles

by Ann Cefola

A Review of Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon:
Joe Queenan's America

In the late-90s, film critic Joe Queenan got sucked into a worm hole of "American popular culture." How a writer who lists TV Guide, Playboy and Allure as credits could have avoided pop culture until then is questionable. But Queenan’s cosmic journey, no less fantastic than a diary of an acid trip from the 60s, is both believable and hilarious in Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon (Hyperion, 1998).

Queenan, a successful columnist and film critic, begins his descent into pop culture with an innocent foray into the Broadway hit Cats. From there, he begins earnest research into "cultural undergrowth" with a visit to his local Red Lobster:

Red Lobster, I quickly learned, was a chain geared toward people who think of themselves as just a little bit too upscale for Roy Rogers. Even while waiting in the anteroom of the bogus sea shanty I could detect a certain aura of proletarian snootiness because of the way people were looking at me and my son. While Gordon, age ten, and I had turned up in nondescript T-shirts and shorts, the Lobster patrons were bedecked in their best windbreakers and their very finest polyester trousers.

"Next time, show some respect," their expressions suggested. "After all, you’re eating at Red Lobster’s. This ain’t some Goddamn Wendy’s."

Queenan then seeks out what he considers the worst in popular entertainment, ever-resistant to what he considers to be its limited charms:

Watching Kenny G reminded me that the name "Kenny" and "music" always spells disaster. Kenny G sucks. Kenny Loggins sucks. It’s as if their parents studied their infant countenances and said, "Looks like he might be a musician. Let’s name him Sonny or Philly Joe." But then Aunt Clara, the musician in the family, interjected, "No, he looks too mellow. Name him Kenny."

In his search for the best of the worst, he listens to Michael Bolton, watches Cannonball Run II and Love Story, and attends a John Tesh concert at Carnegie Hall:

Seeing John Tesh parade around a stage customarily occupied by titans like Vladimir Horowitz and Georg Solti was like looking at those old black-and-white photos of Adolf Hitler preening in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

As a reader, you can’t help but dislike Queenan for his consistent condemnation of pleasures which appeal to so many. So it’s with satisfaction, mid-book, that we witness Queenan get hooked: First, a Barry Manilow concert leaves him feeling admiration for, what he has to admit is, an excellent entertainer; second, he shakes hands with Geraldo Riviera at a live taping of his show; and then he marvels at the great value and service found at Sizzler.

Queenan gets a taste of how strung out he’s become in Branson, Missouri, a hellish Las Vegas East. Taking in show after show, he ends up on a highway median, in angst over his decision to leave Bobby Vinton to see Andy Williams across the street sing "Days of Wine and Roses."

Truly addicted now, Queenan spends an entire vacation in France sneaking away to watch American reruns. In an exhaustively funny passage, he is abducted by BOZO, a pro pop organization that seeks to tap into his vast pop knowledge. And after that, he finds a way...like Dorothy in Oz, to return to the sanity of his former highbrow brain. For those of us who can travel comfortably between top and pop culture, Red Lobster is a rewarding trip.

Discuss your own very complicated feelings about Red Lobster.


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