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Book review: 'Holidays in Heck' by P.J. O'Rourke

Holiday VacationsTravelP.J. O'RourkeEnglandCancerH.L. MenckenBook

P.J. O'Rourke has written so many books of humor that no one is quite sure how many. I have it on good authority that it's 15, but since I finished writing this sentence, he may have written yet another. That's how fast he is.

I've enjoyed O'Rourke's off-the-wall writing going back to his Harvard Lampoon days. In his collaborations with Douglas Kenney, he helped birth the subversive humor of the 1970s — before going solo with pieces for Vanity Fair, Playboy and an especially long association with Rolling Stone.

These days, he makes more news by virtue of his conservative political views and viral talk-show appearances. On those shows, he is far less lovable, punctuating his jokes with his own gushing laughter.

Indeed, his transition from lampooner of the stuffy to conservative patriot is one of the more vexing turns of the past 2,000 or so years. Court jesters should mock the king, not the serfs.

Fortunately, he continues his prolific outpouring of solid humor writing with the new "Holidays in Heck," the follow-up to the bestselling "Holidays in Hell."

This is a collection of magazine travel pieces — the title refers to the European notion of "holidays" as vacations, as opposed to the period of celebration we're now in. And this time the former war correspondent has the family along for much of the ride, which takes him to a terrific assortment of outposts near and far.

Oddly, his weakest piece — and it is gushingly annoying — is the opener, in which he and a bunch of Texans head off to the Galápagos Islands to ridicule the locals (the wildlife) and speculate on how some of the rare beasts may taste.

Predictable and clownish, it made me want to hurl the thing into the fireplace, and not for the political orientation, for I am all over the map on this stuff myself. As with his talk-show appearances, he just seemed to be trying too hard.

But that soon gives way to some very fine travel writing, the best of which is wickedly droll — O'Rourke at his very best.

"There were three package tours of Europeans on board, mostly British of a certain age and divided between the earnestly dull and the simply dull," he writes of an excursion to the Yangtze River. "The earnestly dull were deeply concerned with the fate of the Yangtze sturgeon. The simply dull were like a house party in an English murder mystery without the murder."

Another O'Rourke winner is his study of the now ubiquitous Airbus A380, just as the gigantic airliner was being unveiled. The essay captures O'Rourke's gift for technical explanation with wry twists.

"A million-and-a-quarter-plus pounds is roughly the heft of 275 full-size SUVs," he writes of the plane. "And, at approximately 90.5 miles per gallon per passenger, the A380 gets much better gas mileage than my Chevrolet Suburban unless I have a lot of people crammed together in the rear seats (as the A380 doubtless will)."

Where does O'Rourke rank in the hierarchy of American humorists? There are the invariable comparisons to H.L. Mencken, which are probably a bit generous. I'd be more likely to add him to a team consisting of Dave Barry, S.J. Perelman, Jean Shepherd, Max Shulman — fine company indeed.

Were they ever allowed in the same tavern together, it would make for the ripest happy hour of all time, an Algonquin Round Table of humor assassins. Lord help the hired help. And O'Rourke and Barry as well, when the others noticed that they seem to have the same head of hair.

Poignant is not necessarily O'Rourke's thing, but there is that in this book as well. In fact, probably the most memorable piece deals with O'Rourke's cancer diagnosis several years ago.

"I have, of all the inglorious things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that? And where does one wear it? And what slogan is apropos? Perhaps the slogan can be sewn in needlepoint around the ruffle on a cover for my embarrassing little doughnut buttock pillow."

And then:

"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 I have three dogs, two of which will miss me. And my wife will cry and mourn and be inconsolable and have to get a job. P.S. Our mortgage is subprime.'"

At this writing, all seems well with O'Rourke's health, a particular relief to anyone who has followed the American humorist through the decades.

Here's hoping there's another 15 books still to come.

"Holidays in Heck"
By P.J. O'Rourke
Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages, $24

chris.erskine@latimes.com
twitter.com/erskinetimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Holiday VacationsTravelP.J. O'RourkeEnglandCancerH.L. MenckenBook
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