A wiseguy's view of the world

Monday Book; EAT THE RICH: A TREATISE ON ECONOMICS BY PJ O'ROURKE PICADOR, pounds 16.99

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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?