Don't Look Back, P.J. ...

(P.J. O’Rourke. Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut: 25 Years of P.J. O’Rourke. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press. 341 pp., $23 hardcover.)

Reviewed for the American Reporter by Jeff Schult.

DERBY, Conn. -- Let’s face it, P.J. O’Rourke has one of the better gigs on the planet. As the official Funniest Republican Alive (OK, so there isn’t much competition besides Rush Limbaugh) P.J. gets paid to lampoon or pontificate on just about everything these days.

Yes, life and Republicanism have been good to P.J., and he appreciates it. So much, in fact, that the author of the deservedly best-selling "Parliament of Whores" and "All the Trouble in the World" has gifted us with 25 years worth of his scribbling. "Age and Guile" is the definitive O’Rourke, taking us from his not-so-bright college years as a long-haired, pot-smoking picture of callow youth and rage to his pinstriped, cigar-sniffing present as the only Republican capable of matching wits with Molly Ivins.

Unfortunately, Peej (my apologies, old boy, if the endearment enrages you) couldn’t write worth spit for at least the first half of those 25 years, and didn’t get really good at it until he was well into his 30s and had become, more or less, a Republican. From a practical standpoint, it was a good thing he grew up and developed a point of view – there isn’t much of a market these days for fuzzy essays on dialectical socialism.

But you have to wonder, flipping through best-forgotten efforts such as "Jets and Sharks Drop Acid, Read Marcuse" from the "Underground" Press years (1970-1972) why P.J. let the Atlantic Monthly people dredge this dreck up.

Engagingly as ever, he ‘fesses up right away: it was the money, and he enjoys getting paid twice for doing stuff. "The business of trading embarrassment for money is an old American custom, dating back to the murky beginnings of the Phil Donahue show," he writes. "Examining these works, I see evidence that I was once younger than anyone has ever been. And on drugs."

So "Age and Guile" will not deliver the same laugh value per page per dollar as some of Peej’s recent work, if you’re the sort of person who calculates such things. One has to be interested in his evolution as a writer in order to wade through the stuff from the ‘70s at all. Conservative fans will point out smugly that their boy couldn’t write at all as a liberal and his star has ascended only since he saw the light; liberals might argue that O’Rourke is just as shallow now as he was then, but better dressed and coifed. Regardless, P.J. on drugs in the ‘70s is boring in the ‘90s, and one wonders how the hell he ever got to be executive editor at the National Lampoon.

A lot of people at the National Lampoon apparently wondered that back then, too. Tony Hendra, a Lampoon managing editor in the ‘70s, remembered O’Rourke rather viscerally in "Going Too Far," a 1988 book about the recent history of counterculture humor. Though Hendra praised O’Rourke for his enthusiasm and capacity for work (solid Republican virtues, those) he was unkind, to put it charitably, when analyzing the quality of Peej’s satire:

"Left to himself, he lurched between imitation of other style and invective. It was like overfertilized fruit that looked right, felt right, but when you bit into it, just didn’t taste of anything."

Much of what Hendra didn’t think was funny then isn’t funny now, though "The Problem with Communism," a Lampoon editorial from 1979 that pops up about a third of the way through "Age and Guile," gives a hint of the P.J.-to-come. The book gets better from there, but the reader should be forewarned: O’Rourke’s best stuff has already been collected, bound and sold, and much of what is here, even the laugh-out-loud knee-slappers, didn’t make the first cut.

What emerges in several pieces is a somewhat darker, not-so-funny, misogynistic O’Rourke with a mean streak wider than one of Limbaugh’s ties. On women: "Why don’t we fall for dogs? They have ten tits. Small ones, true, but think of it – ten!" I could forgive him a one-liner, but that was the overall tenor and quality of an entire essay for Esquire. As to the mean streak, "100 Reasons Why Jimmy Carter Was a Better President Than Bill Clinton," originally written for The American Spectator, is full of cheap shots that read as though Peej cribbed the whole thing from a couple of weeks worth of postings on Usenet’s The best of the later stuff is vintage O’Rourke: Explaining to Generation X’ers why Republicanism is Good, threatening to shoot those who would bring back the ‘60s, a look at Whitewater from the Arkansas point of view, essays on good Republican activities like flyfishing and golf. But the most enlightening riff, for me, was not a "print" piece at all, but the text of a speech P.J. gave to the Cato Institute.

You see, Peej isn’t so much a Republican as he is a Libertarian: "Government should be against the law," he explains, and we’ll just have to see if a simple premise like that will provide him with 25 more years of being pretty funny.

Or if he’ll turn into George Will.

To Home Page