Thursday, February 23, 2012

Holidays in Heck by P.J. O'Rourke

There are those who say that P.J. O'Rourke isn't the writer he used to be: that he's turned into a flabby, lazy caricature of himself, soured on too much whiskey, too much life, and too much time spent in the company of the grumpy fringe (right-wing division). In fact, I'm one of those people; I was deeply disappointed by his last two books, Don't Vote -- It Just Encourages the Bastards (see my review) and Driving Like Crazy (also see my review), though the former, being almost entirely reheated second-tier laugh lines from Rush Limbaugh, was notably worse than the latter, which both reprinted some work from O'Rourke's younger days and gave him scope to write about something other than how much he hates liberals.

Holidays in Heck, though, somewhat restores my faith in O'Rourke: it's a collection of magazine pieces from the past decade, organized chronologically and unified by the fact that nearly every single one of them sees him go somewhere to do something. (The title clearly nods strongly towards O'Rourke's classic collection Holidays in Hell, though, back in those days, he was a war correspondent, and so every single place he went was a hell-hole. The choices are much nicer and cushier this time around, befitting a man pushing sixty and dragging a substantially younger wife and three small children behind him.)

Perhaps, like my father-in-law -- and like a million other fathers-in-law across this fine nation of ours -- O'Rourke has become one of those men with whom one must never discuss politics. There are a number of references to how Republican O'Rourke is -- making me miss the days when he was proudly a Republican but simultaneously one that one suspected every other Republican in the nation would be slowly backing away from -- but it mostly stays at that level; O'Rourke doesn't engage in sustained political complaining for more than a couple of pages at a time, and those can be skimmed or ignored.

(Parenthetically, I really wish there was some way to get back the O'Rourke of the '70s and '80s, because that guy would have loved Ron Paul, and sending young O'Rourke on tour with Paul would have resulted in some incredibly awesome writing.)

So this book sees O'Rourke go to Hong Kong for a speech -- and drag the family along behind him -- and go to Ohio for the skiing -- and drag the family along behind him -- and go to museums in Chicago, monuments in Washington, DC, and Disneyland with that family still in tow. There's also a long solo trip to China and another fascinating trip alone to Kyrgyzstan (of all places!), both of which make me wish we could pack O'Rourke off to as many of the odder corners of the world as possible (extra points if they're currently or formerly Communist) and let him report back -- he's still as smart and incisive as ever when confronted with people and politics that he doesn't think he already knows all about.

It's not all good, of course: there's also a frankly embarrassing pure endorsement of John McCain, occasioned by a visit to an aircraft carrier and indicating that even O'Rourke can be turned into a chickenhawk by the power of generic Republican pro-war sentimentality. And he does lean on blandly stereotypical characterizations of his family -- his wife is a gun-toting grizzly bear! his daughters are shopping fiends! his young son is too small to be interesting yet! -- rather than actually letting them be real characters in his stories.

But we expect that -- no matter what territory is supposedly being explored, a P.J. O'Rourke book is always about one particular place: the land inside O'Rourke's skull, where nothing else is as important as he is, and his least defined preference is a mandate from on high. And when he's on -- let me quote my favorite line in the book, from a piece on stag hunting in England, "The British manner of cheerfully not complaining can't be maintained when there's nothing to cheerfully not complain about" -- he's as cutting and precise as anyone in the world.

Holidays in Heck is no Holidays in Hell; that book had the virtue of witnessing a unique sequence of moments in history, as the Cold War world collapsed and less-expected things took its place. But it's a strong return to O'Rourke's better form after a decade or more spent saying things that any generic Republican attack dog could have. I certainly don't want O'Rourke to start enjoying things, or looking kindly upon any government, anywhere, but I do want him to complain about things from his point of view, and not that of the bland midwestern Catholic that he could have been if he hadn't run away from that world forty years ago. And Holidays in Heck sees him doing that more regularly than he has for a long time.

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