One of my goals with CBR is to read more fiction (I’m mostly a travel/history/how-to/humor girl), but I’ve been wanting to get to Holidays in Heck for so long that it would have been impossible to make a concerted effort to read anything else first. P.J. O’Rourke has been my favorite writer since I was too young to get most of the jokes. Books like Holidays in Hell – a collection of essays from O’Rourke’s days as Rolling Stone‘s foreign affairs desk chief – are guided daydreams for the wanderlustful. He has a dry sense of humor, an appreciation for language, and a literate, reference-rich style that rolls off the tongue with a nice lilt. Besides, he’s one of mine: we share a hometown. Even though we’re from different ends of it (and he’d already left his end before I was born), I catch glimpses of my own past in his writing, and it makes me proud, a little possessive, and nostalgic for home in a way you can only be after you’ve gotten the hell out.
Upon returning home from covering Iraq in 2003, O’Rourke quit his niche of “shithole specialist” (his words) to settle down with his family in New Hampshire. In 2011, a quarter-century after most of the Hell articles first appeared, he delivered Holidays in Heck, a collection of essays to answer the question of what a professional trouble tourist does, once the flak jacket is in the attic. What O’Rourke did was get busy and find a new conflict zone to report from: the world of “pleasure travel.” It turns out that Beirut is not only more dangerous than air travel with toddlers, it’s more relaxing, too.
Holidays In Heck is – like its predecessor – an entertaining ride through exotic territory, from the Galapagos to China’s Three Gorges Dam to Disneyland (okay, exotic to me) and beyond. Just as with earlier accounts of West Bank settlements, Bangladesh traffic jams, and the Soviet-era Warsaw nightclub scene, O’Rourke is at his best when he’s convincing me (this time, from atop a horse in Kyrgyzstan) that I desperately want to go somewhere I’d probably die.
From “Horse of a Different Color”:
We emerged to a view that looked even less real and left me faint with a wish that it weren’t. We were on a scythe blade of a ridge, thousands of feet in the air. Snowcapped mountains loomed, but they loomed below us. We could see rivers, in extremely small scale – threads of blue monofilament. Milewide turquoise lakes glinted minutely, beads lost in a shag rug. We were at the top of the Chakal range of the Tian Shan, above everything.
What’s new here is the splash of cute: the presence of three junior O’Rourkes (aliased Muffin, Poppet and Buster) on many excursions makes for comedy of a decidedly more domestic, familiar flavor.
From “Sweet-and-Sour Children and Twice-Fried Parents to Go”:
Everything that makes for a terrible pre-teen – the attitude, the talking back, the eye-rolling, the exasperated sighs – makes for an excellent Hong Kong shopper. That’s how shopping is done in Hong Kong. Poppet couldn’t quite get the knack of it. But Muffin would flounce into a shop, examine a few items without evident interest, and loudly announce, “Ho gwai!” (“Too expensive!”)
More than one shopkeeper came out from behind the cash register to embrace her. “You real Hong Kong girl!”
If there’s a price to be paid for cute, it’s this: P.J. has mellowed, for better or worse. Satisfaction with one’s lot in life, and the accumulation of riches worth protecting (family, comfort and peace of mind among them) is a human and enviable state to reach. I don’t begrudge it to him one bit. But Holidays in Heck can be droll at the expense of deeper insight; less an exercise in asking questions than in confirming answers. It’s not everywhere, but it’s more present than in O’Rourke’s earlier work. Maybe complacency, not the lack of guns and tear gas, is the real luxury that “leisure” affords.
This is a book review, not an op-ed on politics, so I won’t get into our ideological differences, except to say that I felt them more acutely than I have in the past. P.J. may hail from the libertarian end of the GOP table, but it’s still the GOP table, so check any expectation of political correctness at the door, and prepare to grit your teeth if you voted for Obama or supported Clinton (either one).
That said, don’t write this book off as a right-wing punditry piece; it’s not. Politics is the sideshow; for the most part, Holidays in Heck is an engrossing travelogue, and a hilariously loving hatchet job on family life. Read it, then – and I mean this in the friendliest way – go straight to Hell.