PJ O’Rourke: the world’s only trouble-spot humorist

The journalist may be 66 and less gonzo than before, but rage still fuels his cutting-edge prose

In 1979 PJ O'Rourke wrote an essay called How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink. It extolled the unbeatable feeling you get "when you're half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you're going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street".

This was subversive, thrilling, rip-roaring writing – the sort it’s impossible to imagine being published in today’s self-consciously correct social climate – and it propelled O’Rourke into a long career as one of the United States’ favourite humourists, his scathing satire continually offset by the irresistible warmth and gleeful character of his wit.

The self-styled Republican Party Reptile – probably better described these days as a libertarian-inclined conservative – became editor-in-chief of National Lampoon, then spent 20 years reporting on wars, riots and rebellions for Rolling Stone and the Atlantic Monthly, as "the world's only trouble-spot humorist". (He first arrived in Belfast in the late 1980s, saw the "sociological toddler gates" that kept the two communities apart, and dubbed the place "the piece of Ireland that passes all understanding".)

None of this was what O'Rourke intended. As a young graduate student he planned to write a novel that would make Finnegans Wake look brief and transparent. But in the end he gave in to the inevitable. "If you're called a horse's ass long enough, saddle up and ride on," he says, with a wry grin.

Now the 66-year-old has turned his merciless eye on himself and his generation, in his latest book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way, and It Wasn't My Fault, and I'll Never Do It Again. Standing behind a lectern at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, reading an extract from the book, he skewers the absurdities of the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 (or "the slumgullion of Americana", forever "stuck with being described as exploding infants"). O'Rourke castigates them for their vanity, their carelessness, their self-indulgence, their undignified refusal to ever grow up. "They decided that passion for living should replace working for one," he quips, mocking his contemporaries for their propensity for forming overage garage bands and claiming to be allergic to gluten. "Bullshit," says O'Rourke, "is the hallmark of the baby boom; we were born into it the way fish are born into the ocean."

The audience, made up largely of baby boomers, is delighted; behind me I can hear a woman practically hyperventilating with laughter, and a gentleman is snorting like a happy pig. Being insulted by PJ O’Rourke is clearly pleasurable. And he’s still quick. “What effect did drug-taking have on the baby boom?” asks someone in the crowd. “Oh, I don’t remember,” says O’Rourke. “Can the Republican Party get any wackier?” asks another. “That’s like asking can things get any worse in the Middle East.”

Gonzo swagger

When I sit down with him afterwards O’Rourke is not what I expect at all. There’s nothing reptilian about him – unless you count a pair of flickering, watchful eyes – and the gonzo swagger has evolved into a more reflective, thoughtful but no less acerbic wit. Is there any subject he won’t laugh about?

“There are certain things – deaths of children, and so on – that [humour] just doesn’t work for,” says O’Rouke, who was born into a large Irish family that settled in the US in the 1840s. “When I was growing up my family expressed all their emotion through teasing and jokes and so on, but that would not have been the case, for instance, at a child’s funeral.”

The question reminds him of a phone call he made to his editor at Rolling Stone, when he was reporting from the Philippines after the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos. "I'd gone to this terrible area of Manila where people were just living on the trash heap. And I called him and I said, 'I can't be funny about this.' And he said, 'Don't. Write with the tone appropriate to the topic.' Simple advice. So there are some passages in my writing that are not funny, because they're not about funny things. But contentious things can be defused a little bit with a sense of humour. And certainly what can be conveyed is that although people X or people Y seem to be barking mad, in fact they're behaving in a very human way and they're very often behaving much as we would if we were in their circumstances."

The other thing that strikes me is how easy his writing appears: the flow of sparkling brio never seems to end. Is that how it comes out of him, straight from the source, or does it take a fair bit of polishing? "Oh, it takes a good bit of polishing. Recently I've been reading Joseph Conrad again. I've always had trouble with Conrad, hadn't read him since college, but I'm kind of back at it. And I realised that when you're being very, very serious, as Conrad is, you can get away with a prolixity that a joke won't allow.

"With a joke you have to trim it right down. If you think about my favourite humourist, Evelyn Waugh, can you imagine how much polishing went into just a single line, like the one the foreign correspondent in Scoop" – Waugh's 1938 satire of sensationalist journalism – "sends back in a telegram: 'LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING'?"

Has he mellowed?

O’Rourke has a habit of running his hands through his hair while he’s talking, which strikes me first as the gesture of a much younger man: it looks like a mark of uncertainty, though when he does it again later it seems more like a gesture of weariness. After all, he has been playing this game for a long time. He has teenage daughters now, and he lives on a farm in New Hampshire, surrounded by dogs and chickens, where he enjoys doing a spot of woodwork and fiddling around with his tractor. Does this late-found love of pottering mean he has finally mellowed?

“No, I don’t think I have mellowed, but you know rage is not sustainable in the modern world. I don’t think one mellows. I think one tires,” he says with a smile. “As you see the cycle of outrageous things, rage-provoking things, come round and round and round, you just end up getting a little tired of it. You know? It’s so repetitive. This is the thing that must bore God enormously: the repetitive nature of sin. I mean, think about it: he’s been around since the beginning of time, and it’s just the same sin over and over again, with minute variations.”

O’Rourke chuckles and pauses to think. He’s at ease with pauses, taking his time to tease out ideas, to find the right words. “No, the rage is not as fresh. But if I had the energy I’d probably be as angry as ever.”

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