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
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz