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bizarroBOOKSHELF: Gonzo’s Incorrigible Bastard

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

PJ O’ROURKE

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Gonzo’s Incorrigible Bastard

“(There’s) only one way to cover a story like this, and make that a double, bartender, please…”

From Holidays In Hell

Hunter Thompson may have got all the drugs and the fame, Tom Wolfe the lifetime supply of exclamation points and white suits, and Norman Mailer the Pulitzers and the free boxing  tickets, but Patrick Jacob (PJ) O’Rourke, humourist and writer, and Gonzo/New Journalism’s lone conservative libertarian voice, always had the best lines.

You may not always agree with some of PJ O’Rourke’s haughty opinionated philosophies on politics, cars and international travel, but it is hard to protest when you’re doubling over in excruciating, uncontrolled laughter while reading his several classic tomes of politically-incorrect excess, some of the best, most literate and funniest satire, written in the last 40 years.

When an outspoken liberal champion like the equally caustic Bill Maher counts him as one of his favourite people, and the only person with more entries in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations is Oscar Wilde – effectively making PJ O’Rourke the funniest person alive – you have the makings of one of journalism’s most entertaining and most erudite socio-political commentators since Mark Twain.  No one does smart and funny quite like Uncle PJ.

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

From Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humourist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.

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PJ: a brief history

Like 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital Unit’s Max Klinger and the Willys Jeep, PJ is a proud product of Middle American Toledo, Ohio, borne of a modest third-generation Irish-American family in 1947. His father sold cars and his mother was a dancing housewife. He babyboomed into 60s collegiate life, earning his Masters in English from Johns Hopkins Graduate School and began work as a journalist for various underground hippie-themed publications (and some outlets that actually paid him) in Baltimore and New York.

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He sharpened his emerging rapier wit with the celebrated satirical National Lampoon magazine during the seventies, becoming its editor-in-chief in 1978. Deciding that “the real world was funnier than anything National Lampoon’s writers could invent”, PJ then began freelancing fulltime as a professional globetrotting journalist-provocateur for various publications – including American Spectator, Forbes, Playboy, The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard and various other high-profile motoring, political and cultural periodicals. His most popular and most noteworthy contributions were for Rolling Stone magazine during the 1990s, where he eventually became foreign affairs chief and unofficial wit-at-large.

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He covered both Gulf wars and various skirmishes, battles and stand-offs in between, while also been enticed with large expense accounts to visit several emergent countries (in Africa, the former Eastern Bloc, Asia and the Middle East), poking fun of their emerging political and economic systems and sometimes driving some of the most expensive and offensive cars over them too (“What would be a road hazard anywhere else, in the Third World is probably the road”).

Naturally, he has put everything he’s written into convenient book form and sold it all over again. PJ has published over 20 books covering politics, economics, travel, sport, and motoring, and all vaguely amusing bits associated with these subjects, and upsetting as many people as possible in the process.

Following a health scare in 2008, he now leads a comfortable, semi-retired existence on a homestead in New Hampshire with his wife and three children, covering various domesticated skirmishes, battles and stand-offs, while emerging every once and while with a terse, but droll word or two for the outside world, largely through far too infrequent column space in some of the best intellectual periodicals, public speaking appearances and pundit slots on most major American television and cable news networks, most of which really deserve many more hits on Youtube.

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“There are a number of mechanical devices which increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief among these is the Mercedes-Benz 380SL convertible.”

From Driving Like Crazy.

PJ’s Greatest Hits

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“How to Drive Fast on Drugs, While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and not Spill Your Drink” (from Republican Party Reptile and Driving Like Crazy: 30 Years of Vehicular Hell-Bending)

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His most significant piece for National Lampoon, examining the often feral connections between America, materialistic excess, substance abuse, sex and their cars. Unapologetically inappropriate and laugh out loud funny, the piece is a perfect example of his career evolution from the satirical Lampoon years to more astute observations of the American socio-political psyche.

Classic PJ line: “Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you’re half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you’re going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street. You’d have to watch the entire Iranian air force crash land in a liquid petroleum gas storage facility to match this kind of thrill.”

 “Weekend Getaway: Heritage USA” and “In Whitest Africa” (both from Holidays In Hell collection)

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Definitive examples of the PJ travel writing style – “go to unusual places and make fun of them”- the two pieces, one a visit to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Christian-themed amusement park, the other a visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, less than five years shy of Nelson Mandela’s New South Africa, show that PJ can take equally derisive, but honest and humourous pot-shots at foreigners and Americans, alike.

“In Whitest Africa”, published in Rolling Stone in 1987, offered, through conversations with ordinary South Africans gathered around – what else? – the proverbial braai and with an obligatory brandy & Coke, the magazine’s  young, hip readership a look behind the boerewors curtain of white minority society in the calm before the post-apartheid storm. Even almost 30 years later, the piece makes for fascinating reading for South Africans, on how the country was then perceived by the international community.

Classic PJ line: “…South Africa looks like California – same tan-to-cancer beaches, same granola’d mountains’ majesty…Johannesburg looks like LA…and its best suburb, Hyde Park, looks like Beverly Hills…(and like Beverly Hills) all the people who live there are white…and all the people who work there are not white. The only difference is the lady who does the laundry carries it on her head.”

The Bakker’s Heritage USA park is tackled with just as much ferocious acidity, with PJ going on a dirty, though reluctantly dry, weekend in the bosom of conservative, God-fearing middle America. Some significant observations regarding the evangelical movement and the rise of the polarising but politically powerful Christian Far-Right during 1980s that has had an indelible effect on American politics that still resonates strongly now.

Classic PJ line: “I almost don’t have the heart to make fun of these (Christians). It’s like hunting dairy cows with a high-powered rifle…then again, I have to consider what they would do to me if they caught me having my idea of a vacation – undressed bimbo in a sleazy Florida hotel room, bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care lotion, some drugged wine – in fact, you already know what (they would do) when they caught Jim Bakker. Hell, they want to hang the likes of Jim and me. All I want to do is rib them a little.”

Overall, the Holidays In Hell compendium reads like self-medicated take on Twain’s ground-breaking travelogue Innocents Abroad, highlighting self-deprecatingly the cliché of the proverbial American tourist with much glee and clever humour. PJ would, throughout his career, continue to return to perverting the travelogue format in other pieces compiled in books like Give War a Chance, Peace Kills and All The Trouble In The World. It has become his trademark, but the original Holidays…, though a little outdated, is some of his best work.

 “So Drunk” – experimental short fiction. (available in Age and Guile.)

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A very literate and articulate ‘shaggy dog’ story, written early in his career for National Lampoon, PJ prefaces the piece with an affectionate disclaimer – “…not a short story, not even fiction, (yet) it’s also not fact, unless my drinking has led to much worse loss of memory than I can remember…”. It is also the only piece of his rejected by the usually laissez-faire attitude at Lampoon, his editor Julien Weber telling him, “The only people left on earth willing to advertise in this magazine are the liquor companies.”

Nonetheless, the ‘story’ is some of PJ’s finest writing, full of colourful characters, beautiful metaphorical significance (that often arises from overindulgence) and hilarious episodes of drunken excess and giddy stupidity, very much in the great spirit of Hunter Thompson’s Fear And Loathing.

*for a full overview of PJ’s formative years as well as some highlights from his National Lampoon and Rolling Stone careers, his memoir-style collection of unpublished writings in Age and Guile (Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut) 1970-1995, is highly recommended.

Classic PJ line: “…I’m really on a bender when I start carrying a drink, a real drink with ice cubes in a (real) glass, with me wherever I go: to the grocery store, for instance, or to the bank, or into the shower, which is a better place than you might think, if you pour your scotch strong and use plenty of ice. A little warm water never hurt a good blend like Chivas or Dewar’s, but a single malt should be had on the toilet or (over) the sink…”

On the Wealth of Nations (Analysing Adam Smith)

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Economics can be fun, as PJ picks at and ponders the ground zero of all economic thought, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. The original text was door stopping, and for over two centuries, put the fear of God into many a student of economics, but PJ has taken all the boring bits out and condensed all Smith’s important theories into a compact 222 page pocket book one can sneak into exams with.

While it is PJ’s heaviest read – there is no way to get around the subject without falling into a vat of big words and bigger ideas – it is still rip-roaringly funny and easy to grasp for the layman with an interest in how ‘the man’ is ripping us all off. Hopefully one day, when humourists rule the earth, this will be a prescribed textbook.

Classic PJ line: “Smith devoted most of his career to a single philosophical project – the betterment of life. A modern reader is tempted to laugh. It is a hilariously big job. But many of us have undertaken hilariously big jobs such as raising children. We’re lured into the enterprise by the, so to speak, pleasures of conception. New beginnings are always fun. And Smith was intellectually in bed with the virgin idea of betterment.”

The CEO of the Sofa

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A domesticated PJ’s first volume of tales from suburbia – the more recent Holidays In HECK is also recommended – sees him balancing a jet setting career of following international foolishness, as well as trips to Capitol Hill and the mechanics of American politics to say “what the hell..?”, all the while trying to convince his three-year-old she doesn’t need a cell phone and keeping his Old Lady lips unpursed.

Classic PJ line: “I love cell phones because cell phones punish the most discourteous people in the world – phone users – by giving phone users the punishment they deserve – phone calls.”

PJ Interviews Hunter S Thompson for the 25th anniversary of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (article from Rolling Stone Issue 748 1996)

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A personal favourite of mine, this meeting of two modern journalistic/literary giants. The two writers never had much contact during their years at Rolling Stone, although PJ’s work did elicit much praise from Thompson, with PJ often making the lauded Hunter’s Gonzo Honor (sic) Roll, while as with many journalists and writers working at the magazine and surrounds, the Fear and Loathing author’s style and revolutionary literary precedents had significant influence on PJ’s output during his time at Rolling Stone.

The piece is somewhat short, in both length and expectation, but one can’t deny its magnitude for fans of both writers. The obvious contrasts between their politics, and equally, the similarities of their world views, intelligently inform the exchange and make it a historical document worthy of gonzo legend.

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Classic line: (On the genesis and back story of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas) “The rest is history. Sort of. Chemistry, definitely. Abnormal psych, for sure. Plus PE and lunch.”

The two’s previous recorded encounter, during Bill Clinton’s run for the 1992 US presidency, when, together with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and seasoned economics writer William Greider, met with the aspirant Clinton on his home turf of Little Rock, Arkansas, to feel out this new young presidential player on behalf of the youth electorate that made up the magazine’s readership.

The meeting was significant in not only solidifying the youth vote for Clinton that election, but made Rolling Stone a significant and seriously regarded news outlet for future American political campaigning, and highlighting the magazine’s most important players, O’Rourke included, as bona-fide political commentators and tastemakers.

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(Rolling Stone magazine’s William Greider, PJ O’Rourke, Jann Wenner and Hunter S. Thompson meet Bill Clinton in 1992.)

 “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

From All The Trouble in the World

WWPJD: Pretenders, Successors and Disciples

As with Thompson, Wolfe, Mailer et al, there have always been Gonzo imitators of O’Rourke’s biting, yet ultimately good-natured style, from across the ideological spectrum in most of the English-speaking world, including South Africa – put down the cigar for a minute and take a bow, David Bullard. Here are a few hits and misses from that breed.

Greg Gutfeld

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Unashamedly upholding the right-wing agenda with some much needed satire is Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, and for the most part, Gutfeld succeeds with suitably smug observations and well-timed deadpan humour in the often inept conservative Fox universe. Though at times he can be needlessly vicious, as is the dogma of Fox News, through various outlets in both electronic and print media, Gutfeld works confidently as an intelligently pragmatic, relatively balanced and fairly amusing conservative commentator, which in this day and age, are in short supply.

Dave Barry

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Syndicated newspaper columnist Dave Barry is more of a contemporary to PJ O’Rourke than a successor, whose witty observations of “life’s little foibles” as Bart Simpson describes Barry, is probably some of the funniest words ever put into print. As PJ himself has said on many occasions, most notably in the piece “Book Tour” from Age and Guile:

“And there was Dave Barry, who would be a great guy if he weren’t a hundred times funnier than me, and from whom I stole (an agonisingly funny) paragraph about the types of hotel accommodation authors get on book tours”.  

A master of the one-liner and riotous non-sequitor, Barry veers purposely away from politics and other serious matters – although his later work has grown darker – rather choosing to impolitely comment on human stupidity, technology and popular culture. Suitably prolific as only a regular newspaper man can be, Barry has a vast catalogue of both fiction and non-fiction books.

Stephen Colbert

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The US political comedy news shows, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The (Stephen) Colbert Report, owe a great debt to the political humour pioneered by O’Rourke. Particularly Colbert, whose on-screen persona as a comically-played outspoken and unrepentant conservative political commentator, an amplified parody  of very real outspoken and unrepentant conservative political commentators, namely Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity – radically blurring the  divisions between truthiness and fiction, seriousness and fun – with a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating and intelligent humour that is without doubt O’Rourkesque, right down to the flawed superiority complex and the  ‘drive fast cars, shoot big guns and do whatever the hell I like’ school of modern libertarian philosophy.

David Bullard

Controversial British-born, South African-based banker-turned-opinion columnist David Bullard has blatantly made an entire writing career and a public image shtick out of the PJ O’Rourke template, right down to the over stylised by-line photograph of him smoking a cigar between sips of expensive scotch – something that I, personally, have always found rather pitiful.

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When not being fired from the Sunday newspapers for racist rants, Bullard mercenaries for various publications, trading in on a manufactured bad-boy image with overhyped, and no doubt overpriced diatribes, modelled haphazardly on the PJ O’Rourke template: grandiose hyperbole, mixed metaphors and lavish tales of wine, women and cars, without much of the sophisticated humour and literary class of the original.

Sometimes, as in Bullard’s case, ‘derivative’ can be a dirtier word than ‘plagiarism’.

Jeremy Clarkson

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The British love PJ O’Rourke. Something about his style drenched in public school literary references and unrepentant bad behaviour has always intrigued the average repressed Telegraph-reading Tory-voting, (possibly) sexually and pharmaceutically deviant white conservative male dinosaur.

Jeremy Clarkson is one such person, and he’s gone and made a one-man global cottage industry out of out-Rourking O’Rourke behind the wheel and the typewriter. Luckily for Clarkson, with some help from his friends at Top Gear and an understanding editor, he does it well and manages to get away with some improvised PJ riffs honed with his own brand of sheer controversial audacity, original wit and equal balance of likability and arrogance.

Though O’Rourke himself remains unconvinced that this new breed of media-savvy socio-political commentators, on either side of the ideological chicken, who use and abuse satire to neuter and destroy sacred cows, conformist thinking and utter stupidity, is not always such a good thing, saying in 2009, that “it does not do for a political humourist to be smug. We’re not offering policy alternatives; we’re pointing out political absurdities. We’re the ones switching on the kitchen lights and watching the cockroaches scamper. But we’re not going in there to stamp on them. That shouldn’t be our role.” (Daily Telegraph 20 September 2009)

“I’m a registered Republican and consider socialism a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck…”

From Republican Party Reptile

Big In Scotland

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PJ O’Rourke has even, bizarrely, been eulogised in song, with this great track from one of the best bands to come out of Scotland, Big Country and the song Republican Party Reptile. Not surprisingly, considering the working class, socialist roots of the group, led by the late, great Stuart Adamson, the song’s message is less than complimentary, but the piercing tongue-in-cheek lyrics are something that would  impress the even author himself.

My uncle PJ gets crazy just as much as he can / A real party reptile for a northern man / He’s dressed like a republican / He thinks conservative / But he drives faster than I ever did / He’s into nuclear power and insider deals / He has a scene with baby oil and heels / He’s my favourite politician / When he comes on weird / Says I’m not fit for this office let’s get out of here / My, my, loves his ma and apple pie / Well, well, he’s the party’s favourite guy / I hope you like it / You know I’m going to take good care of you / I hope you like it / I hope next time you bring your friends with you / He’s a drinkin’, huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ son of a gun / He knows a surgeon’s gonna keep his wife young / Got industrial kickbacks in an offshore bank / Knows who to stand on and he knows how to thank / He likes to come take me for a night with the boys / He talks about the NRA and their toys / Got an automatic rifle in his pick-up truck / He drives me home when he’s in no state to walk

“Republican Party Reptile” words by Stuart Adamson

PJTV: 5 essential PJ O’Rourke moments on Youtube

 

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A fascinating 2 hour Google+ live streamed debate featuring PJ holding his own with other great speakers including ?estlove, Jesse Jackson and activist Jemima Khan on the pros and cons of hip hop culture.

PJ is Johnny Foreigner, playing up his globetrotting fun poking image in this classic British Airways ad that made him a household name in the UK for about 5 minutes.

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Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

SOUTH AFRICAN ODYSSEY: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BERTHA GOUDVIS / Edited by Marcia Leveson / Picador Africa

(originally published the Words,etc  literary journal 2011/12)

The life of Bertha Goudvis and, indeed, her writings, were a sort of strange cultivar of old-world charm and wit in the same vein as Dorothy Parker, Zelig-like interactions with historical figures and events, all wrapped up in a page-turning Indiana Jones-style adventure.

As a multi-talented woman before her time, Goudvis’ observations through her journalism, short stories and theatrical writing offered a vibrant take on the chronology of a period of history, the late 19th and early 20th century South Africa, that has never been fully explored beyond the usual political history books, with particular insight into the lives of both ordinary and well known citizens from within South African society of the day.

Leveson’s  meticulously researched compilation of Goudvis’ life and writing is glowing tribute to her importance in South African literature, along with not only fellow women writers such as Olive Schreiner, but also with more lauded capturers of Africana like Herman Charles Bosman.

Born Bertha Cinamon, in England in 1876, this prodigious talent found herself in the new world of Southern Africa, as her father, an ill-fated inventor, explored his opportunities among the gold rush towns of the Northern Transvaal, particularly Barberton. Here, the young Bertha discovered and documented the lives and peculiarities of ordinary townsfolk, which were both humourous and poignant.

Being both a Jew and foreigner, living amongst the hardened Afrikaner working class and acclimatised English middle class, Bertha was able to distance herself in her observations of their daily lives, yet at the same time, accurately portray their psychologies and stories honestly and affectionately. Bertha’s first published journalism was for the London Daily Graphic at aged 19, covering the Matabele Rebellion during her family’s stay in Bulawayo.

At 21, Bertha married Lucas Goudvis, and lived in Rhodesia, where, as a journalist, came into contact with well-known political and influential figures of the day, such as Cecil John Rhodes. The couple also spent their early years managing a hotel in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, where she met, and wrote about, exiled South African President Paul Kruger.

Bertha settled in Vryheid, Natal, becoming a fulltime writer for The Natal Mercury. She later worked for the Johannesburg Star newspaper and developed her fiction writing, most notably her novel Little Eden, and an acclaimed collection of short stories based on her experiences growing up in small town Southern Africa. Bertha also wrote several dramatic plays. Her work as a columnist enabled her to meet and write about political luminaries of the Post-Boer War period, generals like Herzog and Louis Botha, as well as Jan Smuts, whose South African Party ignited her own political awareness, causing her to partake in this progressive (for the day) party’s enfranchisement policies for non-white citizens and women.

Bertha’s writing is generously filled with scenery details and minutia of the period and place, rendered with eloquent language and imaginative prose, that makes for an entertaining read on its own. Add to this the overall intrigue of the socio-political changes happening around the people and events across the new frontier of Southern Africa, Bertha Goudvis could be pleasantly mistaken for being a proponent of proto-New Journalism, before the concept was even created.

The book is a riveting collection for history buffs and readers looking for greater insight into what South African society and culture were like during the turn of the last century, through the eyes of a feminist before her time, but more importantly, an, until now, undiscovered literary great.

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