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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