BOOK REVIEW: ‘Holidays in Heck’

By Jeremy Lott - Special to The Washington Times
January 3, 2012

By P.J. O’Rourke
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 288 pages

Patrick Jake “P.J.” O’Rourke is often called a humorist, but the term has become a stretch. I bet he’s sick of it by now. Sure, he writes many things that make you laugh, but he rarely writes just for laughs. One reason for this is his aging audience. Mr. O’Rourke used to be the managing editor of National Lampoon and foreign affairs gonzo for Rolling Stone. These days, his work lands in the Weekly Standard, World Affairs Journal and the Atlantic, outlets that prefer any humor - if one must wisecrack - to be in the service of a serious point.

That suits him fine because he does have a few things to say. Mr. O’Rourke is a journalist and a moralist with both Irish Methodist and libertarian inclinations. His most famous book is “Parliament of Whores,” published in 1991 with the subtitle, “A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.” The light approach helped leaven the message right up to the very last sentence, with its unforgettable blast-of-bitter: “In a democracy, the whores are us.” Atlantic Monthly Press brought out a sequel of sorts in 2010 with a title that better captured his anti-democratic bile: “Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards.”

Mr. O’Rourke’s publisher followed up the next year with “Holidays in Heck,” another alleged sequel to an earlier book. On the cover, before we get to the subtitle, we are told this is the “follow-up to the classic ‘Holidays in Hell,’ ” a huge PR-generated stretch. In “Holidays in Hell,” the author went to geopolitical hot spots, war zones and very bad places. Then he gave that up and started traveling to “fun” places - yes, the scare quotes are necessary - with his wife and three children.

How well did that work out for him? He complains that in America today, “Apparently shorts and T-shirts are what one wears when one is having fun.” Problem: “I don’t seem to have any fun outfits. I travel in a coat and tie. This is useful in negotiating customs and visa formalities, police barricades, army checkpoints, and rebel roadblocks. ‘Halt!’ say border patrols, policemen, soldiers, and guerrilla fighters in a variety of angry-sounding languages. I say, ‘Observe that I am importantly wearing a jacket and tie.’ ‘We are courteously allowing you to proceed now,’ they reply. This doesn’t work worth a damn with the TSA.”

So Mr. O’Rourke visits several museums, goes duck hunting with his wife Tina in South Carolina, and drags the whole O’Rourke clan to places such as Hong Kong and Disneyland. At the latter, he uses the changes that have been made to Tomorrowland over the years to say something about American cultural regression. The all-plastic House of the Future was demolished in 1967 and the “Hall of Chemistry closed that same year, just as an entire generation of me and my friends got very interested in chemicals,” he writes.

Tomorrowland underwent further, awful changes. It was remodeled in 1988 with a “retro” theme, which rather defeated Walt Disney’s purpose. In 2007, Disneyland decided to add a new House of the Future. The new one is fully networked - it can give you fashion and dietary advice - but is otherwise a huge yawn. Mr. O’Rourke breathes a sigh of relief for the future of his family when his preteen daughter Muffin says, with disappointment, “It looks like our hotel.”

Mr. O’Rourke went to a few places without the wife and kids in tow. He took the maiden voyage of a new class of jumbo jet, (written up in chapter 6, “On First Looking into the Airbus”; har har, and no, the Airbus does not look back into you) and he hitched a ride on a plane that landed hard on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (“the most fun I’ve ever had with my trousers on,” he writes, though he may have needed to change them after). Along the way, he got cancer.

The cancer was, Mr. O’Rourke says, “of all the inglorious things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that?” While considering treatment, he turned to prayer. “I can’t be the only person who feels like a jerk saying, ‘Please cure me, God. I’m underinsured. I have three little children. And my wife will cry and mourn and be inconsolable and have to get a job. P.S. Our mortgage is subprime. God knows this stuff. He’s God,” he writes. Perhaps Somebody Up There was listening. He made a full recovery.

• Jeremy Lott, editor of Real Clear Books and Real Clear Religion, is writing a book about death.