Thom Shackleford grins and bears it as PJ O’Rourke comes across in an 844-page greatest hits package as that blowhard at the party who’s had a bit too much to drink, thinks he’s hilarious and sometimes is but mostly you just want to punch in the face.
The first thing you notice about this anthology is that it’s big. 844 pages big. It’s the Holy Writ of O’Rourke, a condensation of four decades’ worth of thought from the old satirist and megalomaniac. It begins with characteristic bluster: “I start out making cruel fun of a second rate American president and wind up making cruel fun of a second rate American president.”
He then goes on to puckishly claim that his entire vocation as a writer has been the result of some great cosmic misunderstanding. He never wanted to become an author, he says; he only wanted to sate a fast-living death wish by being a rally driver, or a rock star, or a soldier. But he was denied the prerequisite resources, talent and spine to do anything else except write, smoke and drink, forcing him to spoil slowly.
O’Rourke has always tried to beat the reader to the punch by pre-emptively ridiculing his own work and persona. It’s either genuine self-deprecation or schtick, but either way he then gets on with the business of posting himself as The Man Who Is Unafraid to Snark and Sneer at any Topic, including himself. Thus he will tell you that living as a bachelor involves becoming convinced that someone is actively hiding your socks and valuables around your dishevelled flat; he will write that Americans are overly sympathetic to the Zionist cause due to the blue eyed performance of Paul Newman in Exodus; he will say that the great mystery of the US government is not how Washington DC works but how to make it stop; and he will announce that the soldiers in the Israeli army look too juvenile and shifty to even be trusted with a car at night let alone with the responsibilities of protecting social order in an inflammatory hotbed.
He’ll pretty much say anything for a laugh and sometimes he’s actually funny. But you quickly figure out what sort of person he’d be in real life. He’s that obnoxious guy at the party who’s had too much to drink and is now trying to entertain an audience of his peers with loud, ribald jokes. Such a politically incorrect blowhole can be very amusing and palatable in small doses. But his collection Thrown Under the Omnibus is a very large dose.
Like many rabid right-wingers who favour the company of alcohol and other men, he’s developed some mildly misogynistic tendencies. One of his rules of good behaviour, for example, is to “never be unfaithful to a lover,
except with your wife.” And he archly claims that the 19th amendment to the US constitution, which granted women the vote, was a tactical error on the behalf of maledom because it allowed womankind to stop fretting over their trivial exclusion from the electoral process and focus their “indignation” on greater injustices, one of which being how “this year’s hemlines makes their legs look fat.”
He also snickeringly writes that children should only be introduced to celebrities if “the famous person has a thing for them and you have one paid for and ready at the time.” Given what we now know about the crimes of Jimmy Saville and the behaviour of Bill Cosby in the 1980s, when this article was written , it’s a joke in low poor taste.
It’s true, though, that his essays have a way of beguiling you with their nihilistic sense of fun, exuberance and to-hell-with-everything-help-yourself-to-another-drink-attitude. But if you strip away all the giddy brouhaha then he often comes across as little more than a dick.
Despite the fact that frisky cynicism is the tune O’Rourke keeps whistling to as he drives the Omnibus, his oeuvre does betray modest levels of personal growth. Essays like ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’ –about which, enough said – give way to articles on fatherhood, and learning to cope with the sentimental feelings one has towards their children. And his later essays exhibit a new, matured life philosophy, one that extols the merits of inverting the romanticism of James Dean: live fast and reckless, he seems to say, but live long, amass more, and leave behind a whisky bloated cadaver that extols your success.
“If all the world were a church and all the people in the world were silent prayers going up to heaven,” he writes, “the humourist would be a fart from the pulpit.” A healthy dose of cynicism and sardonic levity can of course be a good thing – anyone who’s ever claimed to have found inner peace and contentment has always struck me as being deficient in some meaningful way. But to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, the word of the ironist is nothing more than the song of a bird that has come to love its own cage, which is to say: such writing makes no attempt to improve the human condition. It wants only to laugh at it.
O’Rourke is at his absolute best when he’s endangered, writing from the heart of a conflict zone. His gonzo essays on Gaza and the Balkan war are insightful, hilarious and humane, his prose finding a strange balance between hyperbolic bigotry and solemnity. The reason for the clash between the disintegrating states of Yugoslavia, he posits, are the religions their waring populations aren’t practising.
And you’ve got to give it to him for putting himself right in the thick of it, in mortal peril, because it’s not something most armchair bound opinionators are prepared to do. I’m reminded of a line from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”’
Thrown Under the Omnibus by PJ O’Rourke (Atlantic, $49.99) is available at Unity Books.