NY Times News Service, New York
If all of the US’ registered Republicans were struck by an ideology-specific bird flu, and 50 among them had to be placed in a secure bunker to repopulate the species entirely, P.J. O’Rourke would hold a place on many people’s list, mine included.
He’s funny. He tends to be against boredom and in favor of the pursuit of nonsobriety. He has a sharp nose for cant and bogosness. His conservatism is rooted in a fondness for ordinary things and a philosophy of individual common sense.
O’Rourke spent many years as a dilettantish war correspondent, filing grouchy dispatches from places like South Korea, Nicaragua and the Gaza Strip for magazines that included Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. These were collected in a pretty good book called Holidays in Hell, published in 1988.
O’Rourke’s new book, a sequel of sorts, is titled Holidays in Heck. Now in his mid-60s, O’Rourke has a younger wife and three young children. He’s shed most of his gonzo impulses.
“I used to think booze and sex would bring me joy,” he wrote not long ago. “Now it’s a nap.”
These essays take him, often in the company of his family, to places both nearby (Washington, Disneyland, skiing in Ohio) and quite far off (China, Kyrgyzstan, Kabul). Not much happens. If in his earlier essays O’Rourke had a demonic glint in his eye, like Chevy Chase’s during his Saturday Night Live years, here he resembles Chase during his less fortunate National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation period. He’s frequently reduced to pulling faces, as if stunned by the cruddy material he’s written his way into.
The prose is hackier and more cliched than it used to be. His old-fashioned Rossignol skis are “the length of War and Peace.” On the slope his daughter’s “turns and runs are quicker than the French Army’s.” The political jokes are sub-Leno. Europe is “a continent where there’s more respect for Dick Cheney than for a fetus.”
Among the words I’d associate with O’Rourke, crude isn’t among them. Yet Ann Coulterisms sneak in, like this acidic 2008 take on US President Barack Obama: “The happy-talk boy wonder, the plaster Balthazar in the Cook County political creche, whose policy pronouncements sound like a walk through Greenwich Village in 1968. ‘Change, man. Got any spare change? Change?”’
O’Rourke is above this kind of thing. And he proves it just often enough in Holidays in Heck to keep you from employing his book as a Yule log.
The best thing here, by far, is a 2008 essay titled A Journey to ... Let’s Not Go There that details his brush with cancer. And not just any type of cancer. O’Rourke suffers the indignity of being told that he has a malignant hemorrhoid. He asks, “What color bracelet does one wear for that?”
The prose in this essay is hilarious and humane. Reflecting on his hippie days in the 1960s, when he spent a lot of time in the sun, and on his anal skin cancer, he writes, “I mean, I was naked a lot in the 1960s but not that naked.”
O’Rourke loses his thatchy head of brown hair during chemotherapy. His painkilling drugs make him reconsider some of his previous opinions.
“Opiates are a blessing — and a revelation,” he writes. “Now when I see people on skid row nodding in doorways, I am forced to question myself. Have they, maybe, chosen a reasonable response to their condition in life?”