The Clancys of Queens
By Tara Clancy
Crown | 2016
256 pages, $27.00
Reviewed by Cija Jefferson
By its title you might think Tara Clancy’s debut book, The Clancys of Queens, was an action-filled drama set in the mean streets of seventies/eighties New York City. On the contrary, The Clancy’s of Queens is Tara Clancy’s (a fifth generation native New Yorker) coming of age memoir set in a place I’d guess many native New Yorkers may not even know about, ‘80s and ‘90s Broad Channel, Queens. It was there—a “…breadcrumb of an island between Howard Beach and Rockaway…”—that she was raised in a converted boat shed with her dad while spending every other weekend on a Hamptons estate with her mom. Weekdays Tara was immersed with the “Geriatrics of 251st Street”—an informal compound of three Italian families that included her maternal grandparents and great-aunt.
These seemingly disparate places are where Clancy spent most of her childhood and the people in these places are family—whether biological or inherited through friendship. Where you grow up doesn’t have to dictate where you end up, but your family can influence how you see the world and your place in it.
The book opens in 1987 with a seven-year-old Clancy spinning in circles post-left hook to the face. She’s wearing her father’s boxing gloves and attempting to block another punch from her best friend Tommy. This whirling speed is duplicated in Clancy’s writing style as she builds scene-by-scene with swift precision. She does not slow down to ruminate. This rhythm doesn’t take away from the story; rather it highlights Clancy’s voice, the memoir’s strength.
Memoirs often delve into narratives about overcoming obstacles, however Clancy steers clear of those and states the facts: she’s an Irish-Italian native New Yorker from a working class family. Her father is a cop and mother is a social worker. She describes the future for a Queens kid like herself, “…we came from a world where it always felt there were essentially only two job options: cop…not a cop.” She mentions her parents’ divorce as fact, not an invitation to a therapy session. “Because I was only two years old when my parents split, I’ve never known them together. The consolation for that is, I’ve never known them together.” She does not wrestle with feelings of having less just because she shared a pullout couch with her father, rather we get to see how much fun they had together. “Because there is nowhere to go when we get out of bed, we don’t. Instead, first thing in the morning he turns his tube socks into puppets called Filbert and Albert, who are mute and whose only shtick is fighting and making up.” She clearly loves her family but does not linger on sentimentality.
Clancy’s brevity might be disarming for avid memoir readers looking to go on journeys of self-discovery, but don’t be dissuaded. Pivotal moments often resemble the scene heading of a screenplay, providing a brief cinematic view into the moment. For instance, it’s in the Hamptons that Clancy experiences another kind of life, “As far back as I can remember Mark [Mom’s boyfriend] had a strict dinner itinerary: Cocktail hour. Appetizers. Salad course. Entrée. Dessert. Existential questions… When it was just the three of us, Mark and I would go on and on talking for so long after dessert…that Mom would leave us to it and head to bed…we called them our moon and stars talks.” These talks—in part—were the catalyst for a subliminal shift in how Clancy viewed the world and her place in it. This is where the reflection is, the mere mention of the moment.
After completing The Clancys of Queens I was interested to hear Clancy’s speaking voice to hear the wit, sarcasm, and inquisitiveness that captivated me. I pulled up The Moon and Stars Talks, a story she told for The Moth included in the book. Clancy explicitly states what I inferred, that those conversations with Mark and her Queens’ friends “…forever changed the way we thought about ourselves…” and “…gave us the confidence to know that we have a choice.”
I often wrestle with a desire to carve my own unique path for my life not dictated by how or where I grew up. This book reminded me that our family—the people we surround ourselves with—is the solar system and we orbit one another nudging one another along to our futures. I suspect Clancy’s future will be full of moon and stars talks prompted by her.
I hope she chooses to share them.