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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.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

I really think cigar smoking does make you smarter. Or maybe it just makes you sit still long enough to be smart. Or maybe it creates such a big stink that nobody comes around to bother you while you're trying to be smart. Anyway, it works," says P. J. O'Rourke, as he settles back into an Adirondack chair by a small pond in rural New Hampshire, a place he lovingly refers to as "Cutechester." The satirist, humorist, raconteur, ambassador without portfolio and all-around swell guy deftly lights up a Montecristo No. 2 and stretches his legs as the blazing heat of the day gives way to a much cooler twilight.

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.


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