BOOK REVIEW / Eating marxism for breakfast: Give war a chance - P J O'Rourke: Picador, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
P J O'ROURKE would never pass an exam at a British school of journalism. His dispatches are short on fact, egocentric, frivolous, allusive, jauntily written and hardly ever boring. He mocks the concept of the four W's (who, what, where, when) that are handed out to trainee reporters when they check in their natural instincts. 'I can't remember the the 'Four W's' or whether four is the number of W's there are supposed to be. Which? Whatchamajigger? Whoa? What the fuck?'

'Give War A Chance' was a message O'Rourke saw posted at the King Fahd air base near Dhahran during the Gulf War when he was working for Rolling Stone and ABC Radio. The sign found its ideal reporter: it contains a snappy paradox with a 1960s cultural reference; it mocks the liberal left and offers a butch high-five to the boys in the Pentagon, while just about leaving open the let-out that he is 'only joking'. He liked it so much he named his whole new collection of articles after it.

It has been a boom time for O'Rourke. The collapse of communism sees him at the Berlin Wall where the 'tears of victory' run down his face. The victims of the gulags and the tanks, the war dead in Vietnam and Korea, all who have suffered under or against communism, are vindicated. When he gets home he can't believe his people are not more triumphant, but are writing articles about 'Whither a United Germany?'

He is in tears again in liberated Kuwait City when a young Kuwaiti thanks him for what his compatriots have done: ' 'Until one hundred years we cannot thank them. What they do is . . . is . . .' - words failed him - '. . . is America.' ' What has opened the tear-ducts, though, is the sight of a helicopter landing on the roof of the US Embassy to roars of welcome. 'It was the fall of Saigon with the film run backward.' This sharp observation also says something about O'Rourke's sturdy belief that America is best. He is a vigorous apologist for his country's political values, automotive technology and gourmet cooking.

Mostly it is the cooking. A 'Marxist' pizza in Berlin is typical. 'Nobody who's been through a fraternity initiation will ever forget this taste, this smell. It was dog food.' Paraguayan democracy receives high marks largely on account of 'a big piece of steak and a big glass of whiskey and more steak and more whiskey and a salad made out of a quarter head of iceberg lettuce - my kind of cuisine.' The food in Tbilisi and Kiev is totalitarian garbage, though Georgia is slightly better than the Ukraine; meanwhile 'you can't get a decent Chinese take-out in China, Cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba, and that's all you need to know about communism'. When he leaves Saudi Arabia after months of enforced abstinence, 'Grown men, adult broadcasting executives with serious jobs in a large corporation were kneeling in their seats, trying to swill from three or four little Scotch bottles at once and screaming out the windows at the diminishing landscape, 'Fuck you, you moving tea towels.' '

You may find this kind of thing invigorating, or you may think O'Rourke sounds like a red-neck buffoon. But one test of his journalism is whether it ultimately tells you more than straight newspaper reporting. Beneath the jokes and the provocative attitudes, do you learn more from O'Rourke or would you be better off with a plodder who at least remembered what the original 'four W's' were?

In many of these pieces you have the feeling that O'Rourke has left the story in the hotel room and phoned over his background notes instead. He never seems to interview anyone or to find out much; when he reluctantly quotes facts or figures it is more often to mock their source than to use them in argument. Sometimes, in Vietnam for instance, or during the elections in Managua, we get more of an account of what happened to P J O'Rourke than of what happened to the place where he is. Usually this is interesting, often it is funny, but sometimes it begs the question.

On the whole, though, faced with a choice between O'Rourke and a 'hard' news reporter who had a) agreed with all the other 'hard' news reporters what the story of the day was, b) shared his notes with them, c) failed to get access to the action, d) been to journalism school that reduced his style to musclebound bursts of five words, you would pick O'Rourke every time. He is wickedly good in the Gulf about why the other reporters are so bad; his explanation, in his piece from Paraguay, of those self-admiring journalistic terms 'off the record' and 'senior source' is pitiless. You don't learn all that much from O'Rourke about what the Gulf War was like, but you learn more from him than from anyone else.

The domestic features are also good. A piece on the sex expert Dr Ruth is all research notes and reflections with the interview reduced to a few lines, but it passes the information test: you have a better picture of her by the end. There is a very funny recollection of his radical days in college and there are savage demolitions of Lee Iacocca and Jimmy Carter in reviews of their books.

The low spots are uneasy essays on aid to Africa and illegal drugs where the provocative pose seems forced, and one 24-carat student-magazine bummer called 'An Argument in Favour of Automobiles vs Pedestrians'.

These are flaws in an entertaining performance, though it is not a collection for the politically squeamish: it may be the first book that would irritate both Salman Rushdie (whose name appears on a larky hate-list) and the Ayatollah Khomeini. O'Rourke has an aggressive and triumphalist streak which, after some perfunctory sympathy, makes him giggle at the carnage on the Basra road. He is a hard-hearted bastard but a good reporter. I would like to see his restaurant receipts.

(Photograph omitted)

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