How P J O’Rourke saved my life


Since I was 5 I have bought and read thousands of books. I can’t tell you when or where I had acquired a particular tome on my shelves – it all pretty much blurs together – but there are a few exception. P J O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell” is one of them.

The year is probably 1993, my fifth full year in Australia and the second one at university. I live in Annerley, a “renovator’s dream” of a suburb in the outer inner southern Brisbane. Most days I walk from home on Junction Terrace to a bus stop on Ipswich Road, in the middle of a little shopping strip, to catch a bus to the city and from there to university in St Lucia. One of the shops in that little strip is a thrift or op-shop, I don’t remember now which charity. I pop in their often to check out their books, just as used to do a few years earlier on my walks from high school in South Brisbane to my previous home at Wooloongabba, with a small second-hand bookshop (there used to be so many in those olden days) and a pawnbroker with a small book section, both along Stanley Street.

That day in 1993, or maybe 1994, is sunny; I distinctly remember rays of sunlight streaming into the shop through the street-front all-glass frontage. This time there is a small table half-way between the entrance and the checkout desk in the middle of the shop, and on the table there is a pile of books, each one 50 cents. I think I end up picking up only one. I haven’t heard of this O’Rourke fellow, but “Holidays in Hell” is a great title. I’ve always enjoyed reading about other countries, and the concept of travelling to war zones and other shitholes seems like a fertile territory for satire. Plus, as I see in the table of contents, O’Rourke had travelled to Poland a year before my family had left it. We were roughly in the same place at the same time. Now I just have to find out what this zany American thought of my homeland. I’m sold. So is the book.

It was a 50 cents well spent. I have the book next to my keyboard as I’m typing these words. It’s the first British edition, printed in in 1989 by Picador, so it would have been four or five years old when I bought it. It doesn’t look like it has aged at all since then. Maybe the paper is a tad more yellow but that’s about it. “What do they do for fun in Warsaw” is on page 83 (in the table of contents, the city is misspelled “Warshaw”, which actually makes it closer to the original Warszawa, the English “sh” being the same as the Polish “sz” sound – don’t say you didn’t learn anything new today). It was glorious, capturing with all of O’Rourke’s sardonic majesty the death rattles of the system that would collapse only three years later (not that any of us foresaw it). “I didn’t see any Evil Empire,” wrote P J, “that would have been too interesting. Communism doesn’t really starve or execute that many people. Mostly it just bores them to death”.

I enjoyed the rest of the book too, from civil war-torn Lebanon to divided Central America – the rightist El Salvador and the commie Nicaragua. Over the next few years I feasted on “Republican Party Reptile”. “Parliament of Whores” and “Give War a Chance”. I even managed to get to O’Rourke’s original non-political writing, “Modern Manners” and “The Bachelor Home Companion”, which I found just as funny if also less depressing than politics. Then I read all the new books as they came out. While it’s impolite to speak ill of the dead, I have found P J O’Rourke after 2000 increasingly struggling to be funny. His last output over the past six or so years as this “Republican Party reptile” and arch-libertarian ended up voting for Hillary Clinton because he didn’t like Donald Trump was cringeworthy and sad to read, which is did less and less of, until I did none at all. But it doesn’t change the fact that when P J was good – in the 1980s and 90s – he was a god. There was no one and nothing like him. He singlehandedly made right-of-centre sensibilities hip and the left ridiculous, which is the best weapon against those who fancy themselves too much.

At this point in time I should probably apologise for lying – P J O’Rourke did not save my life, though that sounded a lot sexier than any other title I could think of. What P J had done for me, however, was just as important: he set me on the right path.

The line from growing up in communist Poland forty years ago to The Daily Chrenk today might seem pretty straightforward in hindsight, but for a while in the early 1990s it got somewhat twisted and crooked, as lines tend to do when you attend university. Not only was I suddenly exposed in my Arts degree (majoring in Government, or political science, with a minor in History) to 50 Shades of Left, but I had embarked on wide-ranging reading spree of my own (nothing wrong with that; I still do), involving writers and topics as diverse as Noam Chomsky, the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, Robert Anton Wilson and Edmund Burke. Being a late developer, I went through the teenage phase of hating everyone and everything while in my early 20s. I was alone and homeless; not really angry but cynical and disenchanted.

But then came P J O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell”, and soon after that two other books – Michael Medved’s “Hollywood vs America” and William Rusher’s “The Rise of the Right” – which together stirred something inside me. They made me sit up and think: I’m feeling an affinity. Finally. These are my concerns. These are my battles too. These are my people. This is my tribe. P J’s love of freedom – of being left alone – and distrust of government resonated particularly deeply with me. They still do. As someone had said, human nature has no history. Thirty years later we are still governed by whores, there are plenty of hells to holiday in, and we have nothing but given war a plenty of chance. As for the reptiles, if you believe David Icke, we’re ruled by them. And contrary to what P J might have thought in his late years, Donald Trump has been the ultimate Republican Party reptile. There is nothing new under the sun, and if you are sceptical you are never disappointed. But this does not mean it’s all doom and gloom – or rather it is doom and gloom but it’s easier to take if you are a happy warrior – like P J was – and you can have a laugh along the way. It might not be the best medicine, but it’s a pretty good one for keeping you sane in a world that keeps going mad (it has always been, it has people in it).

We will miss you, P J. Thanks for holidaying in hell. I hope you’re somewhere cooler now.