PJ O'Rourke wrote with a high, grouchy style in a shrinking tradition

During the 1980s and 1990s, his heyday, PJ O’Rourke had one of those signatures – like that of Nora Ephron, or Michael Kinsley, or Calvi...


During the 1980s and 1990s, his heyday, PJ O’Rourke had one of those signatures – like that of Nora Ephron, or Michael Kinsley, or Calvin Trillin – that had many readers buzzing with anticipation, including this one.

O’Rourke, who died Tuesday at age 74, came bombing from the right side of the political spectrum, which made it doubly interesting. He was that rare conservative who seemed to have fun better and do drugs better than everyone else. He was cultured; he was, it often seemed, the only weird Republican alive.

His books – “Holiday in Hell” (1988), “Parliament of Whores” (1991) and “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut” (1995) among them – often garnered his journalism. Their author, these books were clear, liked to go out of the house.

Some of his best writing was about the open road. One of the first articles was memorably titled, “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Squeezing Your Wing-Wang and Not Spilling Your Drink.” In 1980, for Car and Driver, he went cross country in a blood red Ferrari 308GTS.

This euphoric passage from that piece, about overtaking a Porsche, is as good a snippet of O’Rourke’s high-end style as any:

We came across a Porsche 930 Turbo near the Talladega exit. He was going around 90 when we passed him, and he gave us a bit of a run, passed us at around 110, and then we passed him again. He was as up for it as anyone we met and hung on our tail at 120. Ah, but then – then we just Marlet far from him. Five seconds and he was just an upturned boat-shaped dot in the mirrors. Guess he could have kept up, but driving one of those ass-powered Nazi slot cars must be a task at about 225% of the speed limit. But not for us. Got more vibes here on my electric typewriter than we had in Birmingham this beautiful morning in this beautiful car on a beautiful tour through this wonderful country from the towers of Manhattan to the cliffs of Topanga Canyon so fast that we’ve filled the appointment diaries of optometrists’ offices in 30 cities with just people getting their eyes checked for streaks because they watched us pass.

For many years, O’Rourke was the head of Rolling Stone’s foreign office. He was a detector of dichotomies, when he wasn’t camped out like Graham Greene in a hotel bar. “Every American embassy comes with two permanent features,” he wrote: “a giant anti-American demonstration and a giant queue for American visas.”

O’Rourke’s conservatism was not doctrinaire. Like HL Mencken, who influenced his writing, his fundamental hatred was for morality. Liberals, for O’Rourke, were pretentious bores who want to “make us carry our groceries home in our mouths.”

“By loudly speaking out against all bad things — war, hunger, and rape — liberals demonstrate their own goodness,” he wrote. He added: “It’s kind of a natural aristocracy, and the wonderful thing about this aristocracy is that you don’t have to be brave, smart, strong or even lucky to join it, you just have to be liberal.”

Yet he voted for Hillary Clinton. “She’s wrong on absolutely everything,” he said, “but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” Of Trump, he said, “This man just can’t be president. They have this button, you know, in the briefcase. He will find it.

He provoked the right by other means. Accepting asylum seekers was in line with conservative principles, he claimed: “Aren’t we pro-life? He asked. “Aren’t refugees life?

Too often, O’Rourke pulled fish in a barrel. His sentences have lost some of their bite over time. He has become an imitation of himself, a professional hazard for a great personality. A certain Foghorn Leghorn quality crept in. Arrogant cigars didn’t help.

Tucker Carlson stole O’Rourke’s preppy looks (khakis, blue blazers) but not his wit, composure or intolerance for barking lunatics.

Of the way he dressed, O’Rourke commented, “The weirder you are going to behave, the more normal you should look. It also works in reverse. When I see a child with three or four nose rings, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.

O’Rourke’s death isn’t just significant because he was a living presence, a grumpy original. His absence leaves a void the size of a martini glass in what remains of the huddled and encircled intellectual and cultural wing of conservatism.

The influential conservative critic Terry Teachoutwho wrote for the Wall Street Journal, died in January. Obituaries of Joan Didion reminded us that she published much of her early work in The National Review. A kind of glacier has almost completely melted.

O’Rourke was a charmer, not a talker. Each of his essays, I suspect, has won more converts to conservatism than a lifetime of chronicles by Charles Krauthammer or Michelle Malkin. Almost anyone can thunder. Hardly anyone is truly light on their feet.

O’Rourke wrote a semi-satirical etiquette book, “Modern Manners”, which appeared in 1983. I have always found his advice to be quite excellent.

When my wife worries about our tax debt but I really want to go out to dinner, I remind her, as O’Rourke wrote, that it’s “better to spend money as if it doesn’t ‘there was no tomorrow but to spend tonight as if there was no money’.

This is hardly a conservative impulse. O’Rourke’s contradictions are what made him a friend, on the page, worth having.

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Newsrust - US Top News: PJ O'Rourke wrote with a high, grouchy style in a shrinking tradition
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