From Left to Write
Libertarian curmudgeon and author P.J. O'Rourke muses about fatherhood at 50, the politics of cigar smoking, and why economics is funny.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98
(continued from page 4)
The tent cabin next to his pond has a chic boys camp decor--more Ralph Lauren than Ralph Kramden. It serves as the tranquil setting for a Dewar's-and-water, a good smoke and a long, complex conversation at the end of a day spent mucking out the pond and making the final revisions on his latest book, Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics.
Looking every bit the preppy ruffian in his trademark khakis, button-down oxford cloth shirt and Bass Weejuns, the cigar in one hand and the Scotch perched precariously on the armrest of his chair, O'Rourke explains his take on cigars and the editorial process. "I think everybody loves to alter their brain chemistry--even if it's only by being full after a meal or that great feeling you have after sex or feeling tired after a day of exercise. All those things alter your brain chemistry and so, of course, do all drugs. But you can't work. I don't think anybody writes better being stoned. Fitzgerald may have thought he did or John O'Hara--but they were kidding themselves. Nobody gets drunk and writes better. Faulkner would get so Faulknerian you don't have any idea what he is saying, which is not much. And the old hippie drugs were even worse. The only two drugs that seem to lend a certain amount of mental organization are caffeine and nicotine. Of course, you can't drink too much caffeine or you get to be Mr. Jumpy Pants."
Taking a puff on his Monte, he thinks for a moment while the stillness of New Hampshire reverberates from his raucous laughter--which is somewhat south of a giggle, and every bit as infectious. With his trademark earnestness splashed with bits of irony and a voice that has been informing, engaging and needling us for more than 20 years, he continues. "There is a lot of thinking that goes into writing, at least there should be. And I find that smoking is the only thing helpful. It gives me something to do when I'm staring out the window trying to sort pieces together. It's sorta like doing a jigsaw puzzle. And I find that cigars are very good for sort of contemplating the jigsaw puzzle and sorting through and finding the pieces with straight edges that go around the sides."
The only son of a car salesman and a grade-school clerk in Toledo, Ohio (he has two younger sisters, Delphine and Cathleen), O'Rourke attended Miami (Ohio) University. It was the mid-1960s when he stumbled into his profession. "I decided to be a writer when I was in college," O'Rourke recalls. "It was a completely arbitrary decision. I was between my sophomore and junior year and I wanted to be something else besides a college student, because I thought that being a college student was so dull, so bourgeois, so predictable. I wanted to be a race car driver, a soldier of fortune or a rock and roll star. But I didn't have a race car. Soldier of fortune, I guess I could have done, but they wanted me to serve a stint in Vietnam first. I must not have been that enthusiastic about being shot at or I would have volunteered for Vietnam. Anyway, I thought, well I don't have the equipment or nerve or skill for all these various other things, so I'll be a writer. It was the '60s--there was no quality control on anything. If I wrote, who's to say that I wasn't a writer?"
Ever practical, O'Rourke devised a seemingly foolproof method for crafting his first novel. "I looked at a bunch of novels and I figured out how short something could be; about 50,000 words is the minimum. Of course, I would have been better off if I'd have read those novels instead of just counting the words. And then I took my summer break, the summer of 1967, and I divided 50,000 words by the number of days and wrote exactly [that number of] words a day in this formless, nonsensical piece of self-referential, indecipherable fiction, and at the end of the summer, by golly, I had a novel. It really stank."
Writing truly forgettable fiction has never prevented anyone from having a career as a writer. O'Rourke won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, enabling him to attend graduate school. Once again, his choice had a logical, if slightly off-kilter, rationale. "I decided to take writing seminars at Johns Hopkins, because basically that was the best-sounding school that I could get into, and the seminars were so desperate for money they'd take anybody, no matter how little talent they had. By the time I got done with graduate school, I realized that I was 23 and had no job skills whatsoever. I guess I was a writer--that's all I'd done--so I started to write for a little underground newspaper in Baltimore called Harry. They had all these underground newspapers--anti-Vietnam War, anti-capitalist, pro-drug stuff--and they were all very solemn.
"The thing that's forgotten about the '60s, because it's so clownish-looking in pictures, was that in the late '60s, very serious, solemn, save-the-world 18 year olds high on dope were going to reform the entire world and tell all the people who lived for the past 5,000 years what they were doing wrong. A very silly period. We were having a lot of fun and we thought that these underground newspapers didn't quite adequately reflect all the fun that we were having growing our hair long, making our parents mad, getting laid constantly and smoking a bunch of dope. This was great! We were having a ball! We knew that the bill would come due someday probably, but for the time being we were having a lot of fun. So we started to do this hippie-dippy sort of newspaper, but it was funnier than most of them. We looked sort of askance and we made fun of ourselves, the way we and our friends were behaving."
Eventually, the siren song of the New York literary world beckoned O'Rourke. Well, sort of. "I decided that if I was really going to be a writer, I'd better move to New York," he says, pausing to take a puff of his cigar. "Actually, I finally 'decided' to go to New York when my girlfriend kicked me out of her Saab in New York on the way back to Baltimore. I had a friend that knew some people at National Lampoon and I went up and pitched some story ideas. That's how I began writing there, but I'd admired them from afar."
He joined the staff of National Lampoon in 1973, ascending to editor in 1978. Who could forget the infamous parody of a 1964 high school yearbook, which he edited with the late Doug Kenney. Or the "Dacron, Ohio, Sunday Republican-Democrat" newspaper spoof created with John Hughes, who would, in a later incarnation as a filmmaker, give us Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
O'Rourke stresses the importance of the techniques he learned at Lampoon. "Parody comes from knowing how to write well. You learn that in order to make fun of something, you have to be able to take it apart. I always thought that if I ever wound up teaching a creative writing class, that's what I would have the kids do. I would have them do nothing but parodies for a semester, because in order to do a parody you have to understand how the writing is done."
Satire, on the other hand, O'Rourke sees as a dying art. "Satire is technically comic writing with a moral point of view, and I think that it is hard to do because not many people have the confidence in their moral point of view anymore. We're in this sort of period where people say: 'Not that there's anything wrong with that!'. I don't think people are afraid to have opinions. People have endless opinions. But I think they're afraid to have a logical and consistent morality which they believe should be applied to others as well as themselves. It's like, 'Well we don't believe in that, but not that there's anything wrong with other people who do. No, we don't eat babies at our house. But I'm not saying anything against people who eat babies.' It's a bad symptom of a good thing."
Returning to his house to help with dinner, O'Rourke is greeted by Elizabeth, his adorable eight-month-old daughter, who is sitting in her high chair as the high priestess of the kitchen. The Barney tape is cued up in a vain attempt to distract her long enough for her mother, Tina, 36, to feed her strained peas and carrots. Much to Elizabeth's continued delight, and O'Rourke's mock horror, the large purple dinosaur launches into yet another annoying chorus.
It was from the helm of the National Lampoon during the 1970s, a decade when you could still get away with being politically incorrect, that O'Rourke established his unique take on the world. But he sensed the need to explore other kinds of writing. And it was time to grow up.
"Basically, a thing like National Lampoon was all about making fun of institutions and fads and so on. I thought to myself that it was basically a job for adolescents and people in their 20s, people who aren't part of any kind of establishment. The grown-ups are sitting around having dinner in the dining room and the kids are out in the flower garden making faces. So at age 33, you start to think: 'I'm taller than the rest of these people and maybe I should be inside having something to eat. Maybe I should be doing something that somebody else can mock, rather than mocking everything.' "
So the "something" he chose was a move to Hollywood and a brief stint as a screenwriter. O'Rourke found the Left Coast experience both baffling and unpleasant. "I did some movie writing off and on between 1981 and the mid-'80s, and I didn't like it at all. Besides [the 1983 film] Easy Money, I worked on four scripts, one of which got made, and it was so bad I took my name off of it. It's not a good job for writers--hardly anybody in the business can even read. All writers do is dig a foundation for a movie--usually they dig a bunch of foundations, all over the yard, while the director, producer, actors and so forth decide where they want the house. I'd write a script, take it to the producer, and he'd say, 'I love it. It's great. But it needs an Eskimo.' And I'd say, 'An Eskimo? The movie is set in the jungles of Belize.' The producer would say, 'I know. But I just have this It-needs-an-Eskimo gut feeling.' 'OK,' I'd say, 'it's your money.' And I'd rewrite the script, bring it back to the producer and he'd say, 'I love it. It's great. But what the hell's the Eskimo doing in there?' "
It was during this time that O'Rourke's first two books of social satire were born: Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People in 1983, and The Bachelor Home Companion: A Practical Guide to Keeping House Like a Pig in 1987. But it was a 1982 magazine assignment that ultimately set O'Rourke on a different course.
That year, Michael Kinsley, then editor of Harpers, sent O'Rourke to Russia to write about a group of old American left-wingers who were taking a Volga River cruise. The resulting article, titled "Ship of Fools," was the hilarious marriage of the comedic techniques he honed at Lampoon and his journalistic skills. The next phase of O'Rourke's evolution as a writer had begun. And he was enjoying himself.
"The minute I did that Russia thing, I realized that here was something that I could do that would be a lot of fun to do and that the readers would get something out of. I would tell the readers a lot of the stuff that other reporters were telling me around the bar at night. Just let me do funny stuff and give the readers a little bit broader picture of the situation than they'd be getting from the very serious, worthy stuff. I can use all the stuff that I've been using as a humorist for the past decade to report real things. It's most interesting to cover stuff that a) other people aren't being funny about, and b) that really have some meaning, things that are a big deal. Wars, revolutions, political crises--stuff like that."
O'Rourke's pieces, culled from such eclectic publications as Harpers, House & Garden, Car and Driver and The Wall Street Journal, formed his 1987 book, Republican Party Reptile, proving that the phrase "Funny Republican" was not an oxymoron. His reputation as a "trouble tourist" or, as his Rolling Stone editor Bob Love so aptly put it, "shithole specialist," was solidified by his 1988 book, Holidays in Hell, in which readers joined him on such unlikely adventures as a ramble through war-torn Lebanon and Christmas in El Salvador.
His focus shifted to the target-rich environment of national politics in his 1991 best-seller Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government. "When you get into something like politics, it's not really that hard to tell right from wrong," he says. "I mean things that are greedy and hurt other people or are wasteful and stupid are greedy, wasteful and stupid. You don't have to get in the middle of the abortion debate or into the middle of prayer in schools to analyze right and wrong in government. You don't have to grasp the thorniest plant in the garden, you can just pull on the ordinary weeds."
O'Rourke followed Parliament up with two more best-sellers: Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind's Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice and Alcohol-Free Beer and All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty. These books not only made sense of the nonsensical issues playing themselves out on the world stage, they made those events, well, funny. And accessible. Like in his assessment of those fearing overpopulation, O'Rourke blithely points out what it really means is, "Just enough of me, way too much of you."
Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut, a 1995 collection of O'Rourke's work from his days as an underground journalist to his current post as an international correspondent at Rolling Stone, is a primer for the uninitiated, the Un-O'Rourked, if you will. That is, of course, if you can find one. Everyone from the most liberal Gen-Xers to right-wing neo-cons devour him. Sometimes he's so far to the right you'd swear he was left.
W ith Elizabeth tucked in and Barney thankfully replaced by The Platters, O'Rourke and Tina finish preparing dinner. Peeling potatoes and freshening everybody's drinks, O'Rourke explains the joys that come with marriage and most importantly, fatherhood, occurring later in life. "My marriage to Tina is much different than my first practice, starter marriage, the Ikea marriage: you have to put it together and then it comes apart on its own. Falling in love at 45, as I did, has one great advantage. You know what to do about it: get married and have a family. Younger guys are under the impression that there might be other options. As for fatherhood at 50, there are two advantages: one, you can (almost) afford it. And two, when the kid gets up in the middle of the night, you're up anyway, taking a leak.
"When Tina and I got married, we definitely wanted to have a real marriage, real family, the whole thing. I think that when kids come to young parents, it's very disruptive. Young parents are often broke and sort of harried in their existence, and this isgetting in the way of their social life. Yes, it's probably not so easy to be older parents in the sleep deprivation department. If we were in our 20s, it would be a little easier to get by on four hours of sleep a night. But other than that, everything is so much better. Elizabeth's totally an addition to our existence, rather than getting in the way of anything that we were previously doing. It's just a ball."
O'Rourke sets the dining-room table and gushes further about his daughter: "She's always been full of pep. She smiled right away; they said it was gas, but I don't believe it. She got a joke within the first three weeks of life. She understood she was being mocked and she laughed."
Discussing a recent trip to India, O'Rourke talks about how being away from his wife and new daughter for a month made him so homesick that he cut his trip short. He describes a call home: "I was flying from Calcutta to Hong Kong and had to change planes in Singapore, and naturally it screwed up. It never does that unless you're really tired and really want to get someplace. So I'm in the Cathay Pacific lounge and Tina was putting Elizabeth on the phone. It was a bad connection, a lot of cracking. So I'm going at the top of my lungs, 'Woogy-woogy-woogy-woo! Woogy-woogy-woogy-woo!' and finally I put the phone down after about 10 minutes of that and I realized that everybody in the lounge had moved away from me. Not only did I have to spend the night there, I didn't have anybody to drink with. They all thought I was crazy."
His title at Rolling Stone is international affairs desk chief. "I asked them, back in '85, to give me a big, long impressive title because I was headed to Asia, where everyone hands out business cards all the time." Of course, having a press credential from Rolling Stone frequently poses interesting and oftentimes humorous hurdles for O'Rourke. "Plenty of people can call up a world leader and say they're from The New York Times or one of the networks or Time magazine. Try calling up and saying: 'I'm P. J. O'Rourke from a large rock that moves around.' It definitely keeps you humble when you have to present credentials from Rolling Stone. Yeah, I'd be a power to be reckoned with at an Aerosmith concert, but not during an international crisis. The Saudis are not going to give me a visa: 'A large-rock-that-moves-around magazine that features pictures of Madonna with cookie tins over her tits? Forget it! You're not getting in here!' "
Not content to rely on press conferences to get his information, O'Rourke delves into his subjects by focusing on the man on the street--or, more accurately, the man in the local bar.
"As a journalist, I've never found it very useful to interview people at the top of the political food chain. Those people did not get into control by being dumb enough to spill their guts to a reporter. It takes a certain kind of egotism that goes into a reporter saying to himself, 'I'll go over here and meet Boris Yeltsin and he's going to tell me stuff he's never told anybody else.' Even if you are Bob Woodward, Yeltsin is not going to say, 'Look, just between you and me, Monday we are going to invade Finland.' "
It is O'Rourke's ability to connect with the average man in the middle of extraordinary circumstances that engages him in a special relationship with his readers. Bob Love, managing editor at Rolling Stone (who began working with O'Rourke 16 years ago when Love was a fact-checker at the magazine) gives his take on O'Rourke's role: "The things that he does are based on his interest and engagement in the world. He's a true journalist before he's ever humorous--the facts are very, very important to him. He's such a brilliant phrase master, but he's also deeper than that; that's why he's such a prize for us to have." And the fact that they share a passion for cigars hasn't hurt the editorial process.
O'Rourke clearly loves working for the magazine. "I like it that I'm not preaching to the choir," he says of Rolling Stone's liberal readership. "I think it's much more fun to get a little tension going between the readers and the writers.
"My point of view is not very fluid," he adds. "There are certain real bedrocks that I always come back to: respect for the individual, sanctity for the individual, the importance of individual liberty and individual responsibility. A suspicion of big systems and a suspicion of idealism. I don't mean idealism in a sense that we should all be better people. I mean idealism in a sense of creating systems that are going to fix the world, whether it's Hillary's health care or Karl Marx's socialism. I don't believe that there are any easy answers to things, and I'm suspicious of people who have easy answers. Life's too complicated for that."
Sitting in the screened-in porch, listening to the crickets, watching flashes of distant lightning illuminate the horizon, O'Rourke pours two glasses of Port, lights a Padrón Anniversary, and puts some perspective on the territory he has covered as a journalist and how that work has set the stage for his latest book, Eat the Rich. "At first I just wanted to cover wars and disorders and violence and stuff because I thought that was more interesting. Then I began to realize that underlying the wars and the riots and so on was politics, so I became very interested in politics and that's what got me down to Washington to write about government.
"I began to get interested in economics because I realized how important economics was to the political process, especially in the wake of Bush getting unaccountably defeated by this unknown governor of Arkansas two years after he'd been the most popular human being on the entire planet. Obviously it had to do with that economic downturn that we suffered in the early '90s."
Arguably, it is hard to make economics interesting, and even tougher to make it funny. O'Rourke says, "When it affects every aspect of your life, how can it be dull? Once I got into it and I started to face this as a determined amateur, just go places and see how circumstances were and how they were changing for people, it was lots of fun. I didn't have to talk about numbers and graphs and crap like that. I talk a little bit about their gross domestic product, but only as much as I absolutely have to. Mostly it's looking at how people live. Do they have enough to eat? Are they living in garbage heaps or are they living large?"
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