Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
We are very proud, in this country, of our sense of humour. This is amply justified; we are, after all, the country that produced Peter Cook, Spike Milligan, Chaucer, Eddie Izzard, and Michael Owen, to name a few. And in the age of Netflix and Amazon, where we can consume comedy produced on both sides of the pond, the differences between English and American humour (legion and complex as they are) are hotly debated over the dinner table and across the sofa. PJ O’Rourke, however, was someone who not so much bridged the gap as defied such a binary categorisation.
PJ O’Rourke was a satirist, humourist, writer and foreign correspondent who cut his teeth writing for underground papers like New York Ace in the 70s, before editing The National Lampoon, a magazine which distilled the kind of anarchic, hip surrealism later to be found (much watered-down) in Calvin and Hobbes. His early writing espoused a new, uber-hip form of journalism – gonzo journalism – popularised by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe; one of his most successful articles, which caught the eye of Vanity Fair, was entitled “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”.
It is in his travel writing, however, that, for me, his humour really finds form. It must first be understood that O’Rourke was not by any means a comic or an entertainer in the conventional sense. He was deeply political and, in many ways, deeply serious. His was an ability to be funny in serious situations without making light of them; rather, touching on the absurdity of the human incapacity for sense. He covered the Lebanese Civil War in 1984 as a foreign correspondent, where he seemed to spend most of his time gazing down gun-barrels. This did not provoke reflections on his own mortality but an amused surprise at “how small the hole is where the bullet comes out yet what a big difference it would make in your social calendar.” (Holidays in Hell, 1988).
His politics swung from left to libertarian right as he closed the door on “studenthood” and realised that he actually had to pay tax on the money he earned. He was guilty of prescribing a rejection of politics (“We’d be better off without so many political opinions. Including my own”) whilst living, breathing and depending upon politics. But crucially, he was just as scathing and unrelenting in his criticism of those on his own side as the other. He reserved an especial disdain for the American Evangelical Right, as seen in Peace Kills, where he says to American’s would-be enemies: “You’re religious lunatics? We’re religious lunatics. America was founded by religious lunatics”.
O’Rourke was important for many reasons. He pricked the pompous, deflated the self-important, mocked the fools who thought they had the answer to everything. But to my mind, his abiding legacy will be of a man who rode the hippie wave and came out the other side realistic and truthful about the insincerity of it all – and was funny about it.