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A wiseguy's view of the world

BACK IN the roaring, Reaganite Eighties - when trickle-down economics, Bolivian marching powder and Paisley braces were the benchmarks of hip taste - PJ O'Rourke burst on to the journalistic scene as the consummate popular essayist for those venal times. Smart, smart-arsed and unapologetically libertarian, O'Rourke was that perfect Eighties species: a wise-guy conservative. Or, to be oxymoronic, he was a hip Republican: a term that now seems as preposterous as "funky Mormon", especially since American Republicanism has become a byword for sexual McCarthyism, mean-spiritedness and moral hypocrisy.

Back in the era of "greed is good", O'Rourke's caustic dispatches played to a willing audience of twentysomething supply-siders: the sort of folk who had read their Adam Smith, considered Milton Friedman the ultimate economic guru, and voted twice for Reagan and once for Bush... but still inhaled. Indeed, his appeal wasn't based simply on his skewed wit, but also on his ability to play the patriotic card without sounding like a bumptious flag-hugger.

His underlying world-view - which could best be described as "America rocks, the rest of the world sucks" - won fans in every beer-guzzling fraternity across the States. Even left-leaning Democrats found themselves amused by O'Rourke's sharp wit and his belief in all-American hedonism. O'Rourke's image was of a right-wing debauchee, whose philosophy was: you can be conservative, but still have fun.

Nowadays, most debauchees would not find the Republican Party hospitable. Neither, you sense, does O'Rourke - who goes to great, subtle lengths in Eat The Rich to distance himself from the party of Ken Starr and the right-to-lifers. Rather, he makes it clear throughout this amusing, if deeply superficial jaunt around world financial zones that he is an old- fashioned libertarian: a believer in free will, in free markets, in keeping the state out of your bedroom - and in wealth as a Good Thing.

"Wealth is good," he argues. "Wealth is good when a lot of people have it. It's good when a few people have it. This is because money is a tool, nothing more... Rich people are heroes. They don't usually mean to be, but that's their problem, not ours."

Book this man in for tea with Lady Thatcher. Beneath the acerbic bravado beats the heart of a serious fiscal conservative. Without question, Eat the Rich will appeal to those folk who know nothing about economic theory, and who never travel. As reportage, these dispatches from, say, Wall Street and Albania (Good Capitalism/ Bad Capitalism), or Sweden and Cuba (Good Socialism/ Bad Socialism) are noteworthy for their splendid one-liners, and for their lack of depth.

But depth is not what you expect from O'Rourke. Instead you expect jokes, eg his view of Albania and its "isolated and outlandish communist guerrilla chieftain, Enver Hoxha... by the time Hoxha died in 1985, Albania wasn't on speaking terms with any place but North Korea and maybe the English department at Yale."

I certainly laughed at that line. Just as I laughed at O'Rourke's description of a hideous journey on the Trans-Siberian Express ("If your compartment is on the south side of the train, as mine was, you can use it to bake pies"). Just as I laughed at his chapter of basic economic theory: "Economists measure supply and demand with curves on graphs. When the supply curve goes up, the demand curve goes down. But how true is this? Do I get less hungry because I know I have a freezerful of pizza?".

And I also laughed at this anecdote from his Albanian travels: "There was an Albanian family at the next table: handsome young husband, pretty wife, baby in a stroller, cute four-year-old girl bouncing on her dad's knee. The girl grabbed the cigarette from between her father's lips and tried a puff. Mom and Dad laughed. Dad took the cigarette back. Then he pulled a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket, offered a fresh cigarette to the little girl, and gave her a light."

In short, Eat the Rich is fun as long as you focus on O'Rourke's punchy wit and sardonic brio. But as a populist take on the pre-millennial divide between triumphant capitalism and collapsing socialism, it is thin stuff. You never really sense that he has engaged with any of the territories he is covering (he seems to have met few locals), nor is he particularly good at conjuring up a sense of place with the sort of atmospheric complexity that distinguishes first-rate travel writing.

But O'Rourke really isn't a travel writer. Just as he really isn't an economist. Just as he really isn't a proper political commentator.

So what is he? A wiseguy. Perhaps the cleverest wiseguy de nos jours. And yes, that is a back-handed compliment.

Douglas Kennedy

The reviewer's latest novel is `The Job' (published by Little, Brown)