Arts: America - at any price

His humour may on occasion be tasteless, but 10 years after Holidays in Hell, it's still what PJ O'Rourke does best.

INTERVIEWERS EXPECT a rootin', tootin', baccy-chewin' brawler when they meet Patrick James O'Rourke. Hunter S Thompson with a better haircut, perhaps. When, as in my case too, a polite, smart, middle-aged American author offers them tea (and nothing stronger), there's a slight sense of betrayal. What? No half-drained Jack Daniels bottles lying around?

In truth, O'Rourke ceased years ago to bear much resemblance to the no- nonsense foreign correspondent who emerged from the pages of Holidays in Hell, the book which made his name outside the States in the late Eighties. He's certainly conservative, but less wilful in person than his wise-cracking literary alter-ego. And his new book, Eat the Rich, continues O'Rourke's desire to tackle ever bigger issues. This time, it's economics, which he declares is "nine- tenths common sense and the rest of it no one understands".

It's worrying to consider how serious O'Rourke might take himself, though. He is good company, for sure. Yes, he does find his own jokes amusing, but that's understandable because, by and large, they are. The trouble is his tone. One minute he's waxing serious, the next he's teasing his own solemnity with ironic glee. He uses the same trick when he writes. When I ask him, for instance, if the Government is hypocritical to seek the prosecution of General Pinochet while conducting relations with the current Chinese regime, O'Rourke talks sagely about the difficult decisions that face Tony Blair - and then hoots in derision: "Yeah, you've just given Hong Kong back to a pack of murderous assholes!" Which side of the 50-year-old, Irish-American does he want you to remember?

A graduate of both National Lampoon and Rolling Stone magazine, he doesn't seem content merely to poke fun any more. Has the old reactionary become, dare I say it, "responsible"? "Oh, I wouldn't say responsible. More substantive. There were only so many times that I could be the innocent abroad and say: `Oh, gosh, isn't this confusing?'"

These days, O'Rourke's globe-trotting investigations tend to arrive at one broad conclusion - that individuals are best left to their own devices. For instance, a previous book, Parliament of Whores, reckoned the US government a bunch of interfering busybodies. Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, meanwhile, takes in Tanzania, Cuba, Wall Street, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Russia and Sweden in its attempt to see why "some places prosper - while others just suck". To his credit, he concludes that laissez-faire economic policy isn't the only solution - the rule of law is important too. I don't think Milton Friedman need lose any sleep.

If his economics credentials aren't up to much, at least O'Rourke, very well-off thank you at the moment, was once poor. Until he looked through his mother's papers about 10 years ago, though, he hadn't realised just how broke the O'Rourkes had been. "But I found out that we were actually under the poverty line in the US." As a scholarship boy at university in Ohio and then on a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, O'Rourke says he got by. "When graduate school was over, I was on my own and I was really broke there a couple of times. I remember being hungry - briefly, for a day or two."

After graduate school, O'Rourke rose through the ranks at National Lampoon, eventually landing a job at Rolling Stone as their international affairs desk chief. There, he struck the literary pose he's maintained in his books ever since - "the stupid American" who pitches up in a foreign country and cracks a few jokes at the expense of its customs, culture and people. It made for a raucous account of the world's trouble spots in Holidays in Hell, and the formula is much the same today.

As his horizons expand, though, some of O'Rourke's jokes look a little narrow-minded. In Eat the Rich, he admits he has nothing new to say about capitalism or socialism, and some of his one-liners are no more than Republican jibes, particularly concerning that socialist thorn in the US's side, Cuba. Elsewhere, he simply oversteps the mark: "The Hong Kong stock market," he quips at one point, "took a TWA Flight 800.'' "One wouldn't make fun of the victims of a mud-slide in Nicaragua," O'Rourke responds. "One might make fun of the corrupt people who were stuffing all the aid money in their pockets. And you certainly can repeat the black jokes that people in awful circumstances make themselves."

Tasteless they occasionally may be, but O'Rourke's jokes are still what he does best. The more chaotic the country, the better his black humour serves him, as in Eat the Rich's chapter on Albania. By contrast, the theorising with which he peppers his travelogue reads like "Friedman Made Easy". Throughout the book, though, you get the impression that the most fundamental problem common to Tanzania, Cuba and Albania is quite simple - they're not the US. "There aren't many large, multinational, multi-ethnic countries that even half-work," he says. "Considering that it's made up of 250 million people, none of them from the same sort of places and all of whom loathe each other, it's amazing that the US isn't a whole lot worse than it is." Surely "the American fanaticism for turning everything harmless and bland", as noted by O'Rourke himself, is a high price to pay for social harmony and economic success. "It would seem too high a price, sitting here in London. If we were sitting in Bosnia, we might not think so."

O'Rourke thinks his travelling days are over. A one-year-old daughter and a marriage not much older have dictated the subject of his next book: a history of his home town Toledo. One final question, though: does he give money to beggars? "To charity, yes, but to beggars, not very often," reflects the respectable O'Rourke. Then there's a flash of the O'Rourke of old: "Then again, there's a certain kind of old drunk whom you give a buck to only if he promises to spend it on a bottle of whiskey..."

`Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics' (Picador), pounds 16.99

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power