Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: Holidays in Hell

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Holidays in Hell

Author: P.J. O'Rourke

Date: 1988

Publisher: Vintage / Random House

ISBN: 0-679-72422-2

Length: 257 pages

Quote: "Often the more you understand, the less you forgive."

After a few years of writing car reviews and comic essays, P.J. O'Rourke began "working as a foreign correspondent...although 'working' isn't the right word and 'foreign correspondent' is too dignified a title., What I've really been is a Trouble Tourist--going to see insurrection, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances and other human folly."

He wasn't taken too seriously: "There are...no interviews with Heads of State, or Major Figures on the International Scene. These people didn't get where they are by being dumb enough to tell reporters the truth." He didn't take himself too seriously, either: "Half the world's suffering is caused by earnest messages contained in grand theories bearing no relation to reality--Marxism and No-Fault Auto Insurance, to name two." In fact, he wasn't sure the book contained any serious content. "No matter how serious the events I've witnessed, I've never noticed that being serious about them did anything to improve the fate of the people involved...Thirty years of acting and sounding important about the Holocaust did nothing to prevent Cambodia."

He may, however, have discovered some important truths. "Trouble is fun. It will always be more fun to carry a gun around in the hills and sleep with ideology-addled college girls than to spend life behind a water buffalo." Youth and the Irish temperament help. And, "There's no such thing as a race and barely such a thing as an ethnic group...I wish I could say I found this out by spending arctic nights on ice floes with Inuit elders...But, actually, I found it out by sleeping around."

How seriously can one take O'Rourke's reportage? Could he be trusted to tell us what he really saw in Lebanon, Korea, Panama, Poland, Manila, El Salvador, South Africa, Berlin, Nicaragua, or the Gaza Strip? To assess his reporting abilities, we can read what he has to say about places that we, too, have visited, where O'Rourke found trouble in the 1980s--the Epcot Center, Heritage USA, or Harvard University. When a reporter is being paid for whimsical comments like "Pants, coats, blouses and jackets were...made of imitation polyester, if there is such a thing," does he actually go into a store in Poland to check his facts? All facts reported as facts by O'Rourke that I've tried checking have checked out, but readers need to bear in mind that libraries usually shelve this book as comedy rather than history or journalism.