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Driving Like Crazy, By P J O'Rourke

Diatribes that don't find top gear

The cover of the American humorist P J O'Rourke's first British publication, Republican Party Reptile, sported a monster truck stencilled onto a can of foaming beer, which perfectly captured his core material. Reptile gathered P J's libertarian rants and petrolhead confessions from magazines like Rolling Stone and National Lampoon. In 1987 this was hilarious hedonism, a dry mix of chauvinistic irreverence spritzed by lusty gags about girls and drugs.

Few of his "confessions" were fresher than the snortingly funny "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink", a seminal piece of advice on how to cope with simultaneous motor, sexual and narcotic overload. Happily, this is the first essay in Driving Like Crazy, P J's latest collection of "vehicular hell-bending" anecdotes. Unhappily, it exposes a steady softening of his comic thrust. The second piece is a middle-aged riposte which sharply mocks the delinquent fantasies of "my shavetail self". A later chapter on the joy of rallying vintage cars in California, in which the entrants are more likely to need roadside assistance from a urologist than a mechanic, maintains this self-deprecating theme. But in too many other pieces the youthful exuberance has given way to a blur of technical detail.

A fillip on stock car racing's hospitality circus has faint echoes of gonzo journalism, while co-driving a gruelling off-road race in Mexico with (former Monkee) Mike Nesmith is a sustained adrenalin rush. Most other pieces lack the snappiness and cheeky one-liners of his earlier work. Increasingly, they rely for humour on indulging his uninhibited disgust with anything to the left of Ronald Reagan.

Somewhere, P J has mislaid his knack for goosing liberal sensibilities. Both the introduction and final chapter are little more than bile-fuelled whines against any form of regulation that might curb vehicular excess, graced by neither coherence nor comic uplift. Driving Like Crazy still has a fair amount of poke, but also plenty of drag.