Laughing at dead babies

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The Independent Culture
ALL THE TROUBLE IN THE WORLD by P J O'Rourke Picador £14.99

P J O'ROURKE is very funny, and not just in his blind devotion to Ronald Reagan. At his best, he is as funny as the best of Woody Allen. Indeed, the two of them share a favourite joke structure.

Allen: "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends." O'Rourke: "Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes."

But when American humorists reach middle age and decide they want to get meaningful, it's time to lock them in a room until they grow out of it. Allen tries to be Ingmar Bergman; O'Rourke thinks he's John Pilger. Not that he's switched suddenly from booze-hitting hedonist to hard-hitting investigator. He's still a hedonist - although at a more arthritic pace than previously - and he's been a foreign correspondent for a dozen years.

Here he pontificates, chapter by chapter, on the "fashionable worries" of today's whining pinko liberals - Overpopulation, Famine, Environment, Saving the Earth, Multiculturalism, Plague, Economic Justice - visiting appropriate locations (Bangladesh, Somalia, the Amazon, Rio, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Vietnam) along the way. Such a waste of Rolling Stone magazine's money, sending him around the world, when everything he found served only to reinforce the bar-room philosophy he had when he set out. Don't worry about it. Lighten up. Have another gin.

There are lots of jokes, particularly about bats, dolphins and sloths in the Amazon for some reason, but also lots of theorising in between them, much of which is neither interesting, original or even outrageous: we had a Prime Minister who offered the same solutions to the world's problems a decade ago. O'Rourke may be braver than Garry Bushell, but, in this book, not brainier.

His main fault lies in the wonky presentation of his argument. For two pages, he lines up seven sources to reinforce the uncontentious notion that famine is caused primarily by political rather than ecological phenomena. He requires the authority of Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, to explain that the wasteful packaging of CDs is "there to facilitate display, provide space for sales copy, and protect against breakage and loss". That's those nuts sledge- hammered,then. Faced with trickier questions, O'Rourke just laughs them off. He smirks at the contents of a text in a student bookshop: "Jean Kilbourne with a beef that advertising makes women feel fat... Henry Louis Gates Jr belly- aching at how television portrays black people..." End of discussion. He despatches his ideological opponents simply by flicking his thesaurus to the page marked "annoyed" and finding some amusing synonyms.

He's not number-crunching, he's figure-skating: skating over any figures that don't suit him. When the going gets really tough, he stops being an erudite researcher and becomes, what the hell, just a guy with an opinion. He wants to have his gin and drink it.

And like any bar-room bore, sometimes he's just obnoxious. After saying that the infant mortality rate in Bangladesh has dropped to 108 per 1,000, he adds in parenthesis: "That still leaves an awful number of dead babies, though in the United States the rate of abortions per 1,000 live births is 404, if dead babies happen to be what you worry about." You have to tell a lot of good dolphin jokes to get away with a sentence as abhorrent as that.

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