A wiseguy's view of the world
Monday Book; EAT THE RICH: A TREATISE ON ECONOMICS BY PJ O'ROURKE PICADOR, pounds 16.99
Monday 14 December 1998
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.
The reviewer's latest novel is `The Job' (published by Little, Brown)
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 2 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 YouTube social experiment shows just how easy it is to kidnap a child
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils