The second of three reviews of humorous books from the remainder bin.
There are two ways to approach writing satire. You can either be disgusted or amused. The misanthrope is disgusted. Every headline, every failure, every misfortune is an opportunity to point out what an unthinking, decadent, base, and ultimately hopeless thing is humanity. Hidden behind this is a fairly pure form of elitism — the writer sees all this clearly while the dullards of the world go about their business impervious to the obvious truths of human nature.
In contrast, P.J. O’Rourke is amused. To O’Rourke, humanity is unthinking, decadent, base, and ultimately hopeless…so pour another Scotch on the rocks.
O’Rourke calls himself a Republican and a Conservative and is very libertarian, but this was not always the case. He is well versed in the ’60s counterculture and professes being a participant in the very first Earth Day, although considering his acknowledged experiences with recreational chemicals at that time, his memory cannot be considered definitive.
There were the 1960s. I recall they started out well. Then there were the 1970s. I recall they ended badly. In between, frankly, I’m missing a few candles on the cake.
From radical rags he graduated to National Lampoon and then on to more mainstream publications, eventually replacing Hunter S. Thompson at the Foreign Affairs Desk of Rolling Stone. He now writes for Forbes FYI, Car and Driver, Men’s Journal and any number of other publications. The CEO of The Sofa is a collection of writings from these places, strung together with narrative by O’Rourke in the role of a suburban family man pontificating to his long-suffering friends and family.
It’s a tricky thing to wallow in the realm of Beltway talking heads and not end up an insular lunatic, cranking out tens of thousands of words solely for the consumption of the converted. O’Rourke succeeds because he is a humorist first and a commentator second. On the war on drugs:
I am in favor of legalizing drugs because I am a staunch libertarian who believes that human beings have the right to exercise individual freedoms including the freedom to snort mounds of blow, the freedom to get fired, the freedom to be kicked out of his condominium, and the freedom to end up sleeping on my sofa for months except he doesn’t sleep, he sits up all night dribbling snot and drool on the slip covers and yammering about the great times we had back when we were both majoring in street pharmacology at Bong State, blah, blah, blah, until I’m ready to shoot him, and — being such a staunch libertarian and thus opponent of gun control — I will.
The perspective is key: The impulse for individual freedom is appealing, but let’s keep perspective on what we’re getting all worked up about. This is not about Patrick Henry wanting liberty or death; this is about you getting yourself all sideways for sport.
On rampant hypocrisy during the Clinton impeachment:
Hypocrisy, as a concept, required this boost. It’s been the pariah of late twentieth century sins…Accuse a person of breaking all Ten Commandments, and you’ve written the promo blurb for his tell-all memoir. Call someone a sleaze and you’ve hired him as your lawyer. But everyone is ashamed of the hypocrite tag.
Perhaps this is part of the cult of authenticity to which we orthodontically corrected, surgically enhanced, pompadour implanted and Prozac-ed moderns adhere.
If you replace the word “we” with “the” in that last sentence you will see the difference between laughing with and laughing at.
The typical political tract lacks any sort of perspective, including perspective on the transitory smallness of most of the grave issues of the day, and perspective on the writer’s own blind spots and petty prejudices. This is what makes O’Rourke’s political commentary palatable to even the most ardent hater of politics (that would be me). No matter how incisive his satire may be, you are never left with the impression that O’Rourke is talking about you and your idiotic or malicious ideas, he is always talking about us and all of our flaws and insanity.
I would guess only a little over half of the book consists of political subjects anyway. There is a goofy recounting of a drunken wine tasting he participated in with fellow humorist Christopher Buckley. There is a very affecting recounting of his relationship with the automobile, including a somewhat autobiographical section about his childhood as the stepson of an auto-dealer in Toledo, Ohio. And on the distributing of cigars in celebration of the birth of his daughter, he writes:
By proffering cigars I’m saying, “I made a baby. Here is an object symbolizing how the deed was done. Let me know if your wife needs a baby, too.”
Not surprisingly, a downside to The CEO of the Sofa is that many of the works, primarily the political ones, seem trifling and a bit dated since they were all written pre-9/11/01. Was there really a time when we considered It Takes a Village to be topic of political import?
O’Rourke’s latest book is Peace Kills, which is probably a good deal more politically relevant. But I would bet that, once beyond the immediate tragedies, the sidelines of the war on terror can provide plenty of amusement.Powered by Sidelines