Thursday, May 07, 2009

Driving Like Crazy by P.J. O'Rourke

The most debilitating disease that can strike an aging writer isn't cancer or alcoholism or writer's block -- no matter how many writers each of those has felled over the years -- but the insatiable desire to argue with and correct his own younger self, the urge to redo and fix all of the things he now thinks he did wrong the first time through. That urge led Wordsworth around in circles, endlessly bulking up The Prelude while avoiding work on the much longer work it was supposed to be a prelude to. It led Asimov and Heinlein and many others to tie up loose ends -- much better left loose -- in earlier works, and countless others to clean up and rewrite and expurgate books that suddenly didn't look as exciting and vibrant as they had when they were written.

And now the same fever has struck P.J. O'Rourke; Driving Like Crazy is a collection of his writings on cars -- mostly from the early 1980s -- rewritten and reorganized and stuck together to resemble a book with a single narrative...which, of course, it can't be. He was smart enough to know that he couldn't touch his classic essay "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" -- which leads off this book, after the new, depressive introduction, "The End of the American Car" -- but he throws in a new piece on essentially the same subject immediately after it to take a few jabs at his younger self, and, more subtly, to point out to the reader that the younger O'Rourke is not to be trusted and wasn't having nearly as much fun as he said he was.

O'Rourke then dives into a series of at least moderately rewritten and updated magazine pieces, mostly about races and adventures in Baja California -- and the reader remembers the lesson he's just learned, and wonders how much of this he's meant to believe, both the original gonzo adventures and the world-weary grumpiness an older O'Rourke insists on shoehorning in around the edges. O'Rourke doesn't seem to realize what he's done here; by explicitly calling into question his earlier self, he leads every reader to wonder if anything O'Rourke tells us can be trusted. As long as O'Rourke is entertaining, which the young O'Rourke was consistently, it's a moot point. But when the voice of the older O'Rourke rises up, throwing in wilted jokes from last year's campaign and flabby day-old meat for the kneejerk Republican die-hards, Driving Like Crazy becomes dull and tedious.

The new O'Rourke, sadly, is mostly doing two things: complaining about his younger self (whom, unfortunately, the reader comes to like much better) and assembling some off-the-shelf anti-liberal boilerplate that reads like the bits dropped from a Joe the Plumber speech opening a Wal*Mart. Now, I certainly don't expect O'Rourke to go all tree-huggy and left-wing on us at this point in his life, but he used to be much more specific, original, and pointed in his criticisms. He's also a guy who's gone a lot of world traveling, so hearing him drag out the tedious repetitive "lock up your daughters! Obama and his socialists are coming!" spiel is particularly galling -- he's seen socialism (and even Soviet communism), and written well about it. He's always been a right-winger -- and a great one, at that -- but he's always before gone his own way; it's sad to see that he's drunken so deeply of the Generic Republican Kool-Aid, and I still have hopes he can flush it from his system.

But, if you can hack through the new-O'Rourke overgrowth -- or are enough of a red-state dead-ender that you like to hear all that stuff one more time -- the old O'Rourke is still there, and still as funny and outrageous as ever. Driving Like Crazy collects a bunch of articles, mostly from Car and Driver, which haven't been seen in a quarter-century. It would have been much better if O'Rourke kept his modern comments separate -- perhaps as introductions or afterwords to the older pieces -- but he didn't. Still, it's pretty easy to detect the shift in tone from snotty young O'Rourke to bilious old O'Rourke as you read. And, for those of us who grew up on Republican Party Reptile, it's still worth it to dig out the nuggets of that crazy O'Rourke kid inside.

Update, 6/19: Someone from the Cato Institute -- fighting to free Americans from the tyranny of government for thirty years, whether that tyranny be the Clean Water Act, the SEC, "socialized medicine," or probably roads paid for by public funds -- kindly let me know that they've posted a video of O'Rourke reading the introduction to his book at a Cato function. That will give you the tenor of Driving Like Crazy better than any of my words could.

(And I tease the Cato Institute -- they say that they stand for lots of things that I agree with, but I only ever seem to hear about them when they're claiming that the government has no right or reason to inspect slaughterhouses, or stop ex-felons from carrying automatic weapons into elementary schools, or things like that.)

1 comment:

Harry Markov said...

I never really thought authors did that writer version of middle age crisis and go back to places they shouldn't. It's a pity, but I do find this behavior interesting from a writer's point of view. Thanks for shedding light on that via this example.

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