MATT LABASH: P.J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022.
It’s a sad fact of American letters that “humorists” – a word I’m almost positive P.J. detested – often get consigned to the children’s table. As though laughing at life keeps one from extracting the marrow from it – a sentiment P.J. regarded as ass-backwards. After all, he was a God guy – and God himself clearly has a bent sense of humor. As P.J. once wrote me: “We acknowledge the Bible as the word of God. And — the one attribute that we absolutely share with our Creator — we have a sense of humor. Right off the bat there’s Genesis 1:27: ‘God created man in his own image.’ And then I look in the mirror.”
But how good a writer was P.J. O’Rourke? Well that’s a hard thing to quantify if you’ve never read him. And I could sit here and play you his greatest hits reel, which would be a daunting challenge, since there are so many hits to choose from. He was a one-man Bartlett’s, if Bartlett’s did funny. P.J. tended to leave at least one chocolate on the pillow in every paragraph. So in showing you how good he is– sorry, was (he’s still so alive to me, I keep forgetting) – I have decided to simplify, and conduct an experiment. As I write this, I have five of his 20 or so books stacked near my keyboard. I am now going to open each one randomly, and relay to you whatever passage I see first.
From 1983’s Modern Manners:
This brings us to a more drastic method of getting an audience: be one. Listen patiently while other people tell you about themselves. Maybe they’ll return the favor. This is risky, however. By the time they get done talking about themselves and are ready to reciprocate, you may be dead from old age. Another danger is that that if you listen long enough you may start attending to what’s being said. You may start thinking about other people, even sympathizing with them. You may develop a true empathy for others, and this will turn you into such a human oddity that you will become a social outcast.
From 1989’s Holidays in Hell:
There were some odd ducks in the audience. They were all milkmaid types with too much hair spray. The men were dark and greasy with Cadillac-fin lapels on their suits and tie knots as big as their ears. “What kind of people go to nightclubs in Poland?” I asked Zofia. “Whores and Arabs,” she said. “What do Poles really do for fun?” “Drink,” said Zofia.
From 1991’s Parliament of Whores:
We had a choice between Democrats who couldn’t learn from the past and Republicans who couldn’t stop living in it, between Democrats who wanted to tax us to death and Republicans who preferred to have us die in a foreign war. The Democrats planned to fiddle while Rome burned. The Republicans were going to burn Rome, then fiddle.
From 1994’s All the Trouble In the World:
Politicians are always searching for some grave alarm which will cause individuals to abandon their separate concerns and prerogatives and act in concert so that politicians can wield the baton. Calls to mortal combat are forever being sounded (though only metaphorically – politicians don’t like real wars, too much merit is involved). The idea is that people will drop everything for a WWIII. Remember the War on Poverty? And how Jimmy Carter asked Americans to respond to a mere rise in the price of crude oil with “the moral equivalent of war”? (What were we supposed to do, shame the gas station attendant to death?)
From 1995’s Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut:
We were on the Big Island, Hawaii proper, the place where migrating Polynesians originally landed more than 1,500 years ago and where Captain Cook died in 1779. Cook was the first haole (a Hawaiian word meaning “person whose luggage is still at the Los Angeles airport”) to visit Hawaii. His crew spread venereal disease through the islands, the Hawaiians beat Captain Cook to death with clubs, and the tourist trade has continued with only minor alterations to the present day.
Again, these aren’t necessarily the Greatest Hits. These are just roll-of-the-dice random passages. Yet I embarked on this experiment fully confident that my eyes wouldn’t land on some weakly-written or boring graf. For one simple reason: P.J. was incapable of writing those. Try the same with any other writer, and see how quickly the experiment fails.
Read the whole thing.