[10 January 2012]
Well, it had to happen sooner or later. After a writing life spent relentlessly quipping—like a sort of self-aware John Wayne—from the ugliest of American political frontlines, legendary humourist PJ O’Rourke probably could stand some nice normal-type family vacations more than most.
Whether they’re good for his writing career, on the other hand, is an open question. Holidays in Heck is openly subtitled ‘The follow-up to the classic Holidays in Hell’, and is evidently meant to strike fans as a sort of charmingly ironic contrast: ‘A former war correspondent experiences frightening vacation fun.’
Thing is—as the author’s Foreword itself admits with a frankness that comes off as inadvertently ominous—switching out tours of war zones and humanizing evil caricatures for skiing in Ohio and shopping in Hong Kong is inevitably going to raise very decent questions re: there being a point to it all. And having now read the entire book, I am by no means prepared to argue that the point wasn’t merely buffing up a random collection of magazine pieces to the point of saleability.
Despite firmly establishing ‘Mrs. O’, preteen daughters Muffin and Poppet and toddler son Buster as his new and all-consuming supporting cast, this isn’t actually the story of how crazy Unca PJ settled down and went not-so-quietly to Disneyland. It in fact spans the past eight years, a variety of assignments and a fairly bewildering array of topics both personal and sociopolitical.
Thus, in terms of expectations at least, if you haven’t yet read Holidays in Hell—which is indeed one of the minor classics of travel writing—you may actually have the advantage going into Holidays in Heck. How much either camp enjoys themselves past that will be firmly dependent on how much of a break they’re willing to give the author generally—and there we get into a completely grey area, wherein both will most likely be at least intermittently amused but almost certainly not completely satisfied.
In characteristically blunt, commonsensical style, O’Rourke explores the complexities of the Kazakh attitude to the horse and the British attitude to the hunt (and later, of teaching Mrs. O to hunt as well); goes on extended tours of Airbus jets, modern art shows, Chinese capitalism and Afghan attempts at self-governance; re-evaluates life and belief in the face of a cancer diagnosis (thankfully not fatal); and gives the inevitable extended explanation of his vote for John McCain (unsurprisingly, it involves a lengthy extrapolation from the ability to command aircraft carriers).
As a personal statement on the current state of a legendary humourist… well, on the evidence as presented here, it can’t really be said that he’s trying particularly hard to make one. At least, not from the sociopolitical end of things. The tone here is that of the commentator who has hit a wall vis-a-vis his relateability to the commented upon—whether via age, jaded sophistication or a combination of the two—and at any rate, cannot work up quite enough energy to do anything proactive about it except, sometimes, be monumentally irritated.
This is especially obvious re: the political commentary. His Chinese and Afghan pieces, the closest this collection comes to current real-world relevant, do benefit greatly from his years of experience, but are oddly devoid of pointed opinion. Given that the pieces are arranged in rough chronological order from early-to-late 2000’s, there’s an interesting low-level evolution here—from the old-style cocky, derisive certainty through newly defensive, even vulnerable articulation—that inadvertently reveals quite a bit about the ability of ideological comedy to actually articulate larger ideals.
Thus the most poignant moment in Holidays in Heck, on a few levels, is the conclusion to the McCain piece, which hits interestingly just before the cancer diagnosis but evidently was added long afterwards. It perfectly captures the ultimate fate of any man, no matter how intelligent or experienced in the debate, who stubbornly insists on defining any American political position in terms of the sole guardianship of truth and honour—let alone common sense.
“And a few months later,” the footnote reads, “McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, and… Oh, never mind.”
What O’Rourke still does have regardless, and a good case can be made that it is priceless, is his knack for turning not only a funny but an unpretentious phrase – mitigated, again, by years of earned experience. This is how, despite being a fairly apolitical Canadian, I first learned to appreciate his writing to begin with; the rhetoric may have always been unsubtle, and by now seems almost bizarrely irrelevant (seriously, isn’t O’Rourke too smart to still be working riffs like “those hippie environmentalists/PC types!” “Modern art is crap!” “Liberals have no sense of humour!”?)... it’s still always at least forgivable, as part of a larger sincerity.
There’s a reason the curmudgeonly humourist will never go out of style, and it has to do with the inherent relateability of imperfection; there will always be something enormously appealing about a writer who is not only so frankly interested in what’s going on around him, but who is also able to communicate it on an equally human level.
Here this quality is at its most obvious, and appealing, in the passages that focus on that new and most sincerely bewildering of life changes: the acquisition of small children. These family scenes are what resonate, as evidence of an intelligent man exploring a topic worthy both of his skill and our interest. “Children are actually very interesting,” he concludes about half-way through the tour of Hong Kong, perhaps the best and freshest piece of the lot for just this reason. “They’d probably be worth reporting on if they got their own country or something.”
All of which makes Holidays in Heck at the very least a serviceable example of what might be called the Everyone’s Crazy Here But Me and Hopefully Thee school of travel authorship. Thinking about it, perhaps the ideal preparation would in fact be to have read several of Bill Bryson’s iconic examples of the same genre. Just reverse the political spectrum, remember to smile indulgently at the fallibility, and you’re golden.