P.J O’Rourke, 1947-2022

Harry Goodwin 16 February 2022
Image Credit: commercial licences

Raise several glasses – whisky, not wine – to P.J. O’Rourke, dead at 74 after a career seeing the funny side of Ecstasy, drink-driving, Vietnam, and apartheid. His two great satirical collections, Republican Party Reptile (1987) and Holidays in Hell (1988), live on.

His values, only ever expressed ironically or sentimentally, were those of a Boston or Chicago pub.

O’Rourke can be read as a self-caricature of Irish America at the height of its political pomp, coming too late to hit Kennedy and missing Clinton (perhaps because Clinton’s vibe was just like O’Rourke’s own), but getting the Reagan years just right. His values, only ever expressed ironically or sentimentally, were those of a Boston or Chicago pub. ‘We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear weapons, busing our kids anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the UN, taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Natassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).’

You can tell the literary craft from the trivial-important juxtapositions and the lop-sided parentheses. Although there’s surely a stream of self-irony in the cascade, it remains a good summary of actual policy under the latest Irish-American President, whose biography encompasses everything O’Rourke loved and loathed. Strange to say, O’Rourke was not an especially political writer – certainly not the ‘conservative satirist’ whose vote for Hillary Clinton (the second-worst thing that could happen to America, he thought) has been emphasised, with smug approval, by mainstream obituarists. He was a comic writer, not satirical one – aiming to make people laugh, not press a point.

Born in Ohio, O’Rourke started out in the local press: ‘When you’re working class, Irish Catholic, like to read, don’t like to get up early in the morning and lift heavy things…what do you do? You can be a priest or a newspaper reporter. So what’s it gonna be, whiskey and women, or just whiskey? Or as it turns out, altar boys, but we didn’t know that back then.’ His innate gift of humour won him a spot at National Lampoon, a magazine written by and for immature young men, at the height of Seventies drugginess. This was the hour of ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’, an essay, later collected in Republican Party Reptile but available online, which he appeared to write from personal experience.

His was a populism that knew no borders.

O’Rourke was obviously learned, and was capable of riffing on Mark Twain or Greek mythology for a laugh. But save a dyspeptic report from Harvard’s 350th anniversary – ‘Harvard is the home of American ideas; there have been several of these, and somebody has to take the blame for them’ – and an essay comparing the merits of New York Review of Books with those of ‘TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes’ on NBC, he was largely uninterested in parodying ‘serious’ American culture. His terrain was the real world, and his preference for ordinary people. Cruising down the Volga with a group of American socialists (‘Believe me, you haven’t been bored until you’ve been buttonholed by a seventy-year old woman who holds forth all afternoon on the perfidity of American foreign policy and shows you pictures of her grandchildren’), he found companionship with vodka-guzzling Russian guides and CIA plants. His was a populism that knew no borders.

O’Rourke spent the Eighties, by any measure his high period, reporting from the warzones and hellscapes of the world. His every sentence dragged a barb across the pieties of the US commentariat. Korea: ‘When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote, KIM DAE JUNG, in blood on his fancy white ski jacket – I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign’. The Philippines, a country he came to love: ‘Franco bought a disgusting batok which is a fertilized duck egg in which the duckling has been allowed to grow until it’s almost ready to hatch, then it’s hard-boiled. The result looks like an anti-abortion movie produced by the Duckberg branch of the Right-to-Life organization’. Lebanon: ‘Beirut’s journalists call the Israelis “Schlomos” and consider them war criminals, and also real squares. Personally, I was glad to confront the only armed maniacs in the Middle East who aren’t allowed to shoot US citizens’. He wrought comedy from the catholicity of his contempt.

Like football stars, comic writers are great until they aren’t. Clinton rang rings around O’Rourke in a Rolling Stone interview, and well-deserved bourgeois contentment in New Hampshire deprived him of his two comic subjects: wars and drugs. His spiel hardened into a schtick, which Craig Brown skewered in a matchless parody: ‘Blood was splattered over the sidewalk like Heinz Tomato Ketchup over French fries’. Small matter: O’Rourke’s best stuff is enough. He had a gluttonous appetite for life, and a boozy sympathy for normal people in tough situations. That he survived the things he joked about is proof, perhaps, of the luck of the Irish.