Seriously funny?

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The Independent Culture
AN LWT television director who went to make a film about PJ O'Rourke was reportedly disappointed. He had supposed that O'Rourke was playing some sophisticated British game involving multiple layers of irony, satire, inversion and comic exaggeration, and was appalled to discover that "the man means what he says!"

At the risk of alienating more of O'Rourke's many fans over here, it is certainly true that he is quite serious about his political views. This doesn't of course mean that his political views are serious, except insofar as they are virtually indistinguishable from those of various individuals, organisations and paramilitary groups, all of them armed to the teeth, on the anarchistic, libertarian fringe of the American right- wing. Come to think of it, perhaps that does make them serious.

But our concern here is not how serious O'Rourke is but how funny, and the answer is that he can be very funny indeed. Even as a political act, that is not to be underestimated. In America, as in the Soviet Union, people have evolved two quite different levels of discourse to discuss the society in which they live, switching between them according to the situation. Whatever one may think of O'Rourke's views, it is very refreshing to find someone using something resembling the colourful, cynical "private" language which Americans speak when among people they know and trust, rather than the stilted, euphemistic code they use to play it safe in public.

That said, it has to be admitted that the present collection, with a few exceptions, is very far from being PJ at his best. O'Rourke tries to pre-empt criticism with a typically self-deprecating introduction, but the ensuing miscellany of articles, the earliest dating from 1970, calls his bluff by continually adding up to less than the sum of its parts. For example, there are no fewer than seven pieces of "automotive journalism", each of them featuring PJ gloating laddishly about being able to drive the shit out of luxury vehicles in glamorous places and get paid to do it. The charm, such as it is, soon wears thin.

The book opens with juvenilia from O'Rourke's days as a militant hippie activist, which is neither better nor worse than the stuff every underground paper was publishing back then. We move on to PJ's decade at National Lampoon magazine, which serves as a reminder that (a) the Lampoon wasn't nearly as funny as it seemed at the time to a gaggle of stoned, repressed adolescents, and (b) that O'Rourke wasn't one of their best writers anyway.

In fact, on the evidence here, O'Rourke was a late developer who didn't really hit his stride until the 1980s, and may already have peaked. He is also extremely uneven. One would think that the absurdities of the American "author tour" circus would provide a rich subject for his humour, but the resulting piece is oddly lacking in focus and edge. As always, travel seems to bring out the best in him: a long article on the 1994 Mexican elections is well up to the standard of Holidays in Hell, which is saying a lot.

But the undoubted high points are two essays in which PJ abandons the safety of the comic persona and writes about his childhood. A new edition of Emily Post's Etiquette reminds him of the 1945 edition, one of the few books his parents possessed, around whose stylised characters and exacting rituals he wove fantasies set in a world of "elegance, dignity and sophistication". The charm of this sets off a very powerful piece called simply "Why I'm Not Afraid of the Dark", in which all the teenage O'Rourke's loathing of his domineering stepfather culminates in a midnight epiphany which both explains and exorcises his night terrors for ever.

This is an extremely economical and moving piece of writing, and suggests what might be forthcoming if O'Rourke were to position his work rather more towards the Garrison Keillor end of the humour spectrum. Alas, that seems unlikely. The trouble is that PJ is indeed serious about politics, and now that the "Republican Revolution" is in full swing he is rarely off the soapbox. The problem with these polemical pieces, as with his last book, All the Trouble in the World, is that they are not only a particularly infantile form of political propaganda, they are also unfunny.

Still, at least we now know why O'Rourke gets in such a rage about "big government": it reminds him of his step-father.