Republican Party Reptile, by P.J. O'Rourke, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 220 pages, $7.95 paper
As someone who makes a living by trying to be funny, I know all too well that "funny" is not only in the eye, it's in the mood of the beholder; thus, my initial reaction to P.J. O'Rourke's Republican Party Reptile, or, more to the point, my lack thereof, was not necessarily an indication of the book's comic quality. A proper review of a book "intended to be funny" requires adherence to a few well-established rules for evaluating humor.
Rule No. 1: One can fairly evaluate the comic content of a literary work only after receiving some good news.
Good news puts one in the proper frame of mind for an unprejudiced appreciation of humor. However, the news can't be too good. If you heard, for example, that Sam Donaldson had his eyebrows plucked, you might get too happy, and The Diary of Anne Frank would seem like a comic masterpiece.
The next rule refers to the necessity the founding fathers of comedy foresaw for checks and balances on the reviewer's objectivity.
Rule No. 2: Read a substantial portion of the book out loud to your friends.
If your friends do not laugh, the book almost surely is not funny, because friends, being friends, are at least disposed to appreciate your own expressive interpretation of the work, if not the work itself. If they do laugh, however, one must be careful about the conclusions drawn. For example, when I read various randomly selected passages of Republican Party Reptile to a few reasonably close friends, they laughed uproariously. This could mean one of several things:
(1) The book is truly funny;
(2) The book is not truly funny, but the Lebanese Blond Hash was dynamite stuff.
(3) The book isn't funny as a book, but it makes a great screenplay.
If friends laugh, it is still necessary to apply one more rule in order to reach a definitive conclusion about a book's comic content.
Rule No. 3: Solicit opinions of the book from at least 10 strangers.
This rule subscribes to the notion that there is safety in numbers, especially if the strangers are other book reviewers who have already published their views.
Having pursued all the appropriate channels and having also reread the book on the day that Pat Schroeder withdrew from the presidential campaign, I must now conclude without question that P.J. O'Rourke's latest effort is truly funny, in fact, downright hilarious.
Given all this, you might wonder what the book is about. I could say it's about 220 pages, ha, ha, ha, but that would be stealing a line from another book review written, coincidentally, by P.J. O'Rourke. Stealing from other people is undoubtedly the comic's most efficient way to create new material, but it is unseemly to do it in print, especially if one aspires to the presidency.
Republican Party Reptile is a collection of 21 previously published essays all purported by the author to be written from a conservative Republican point of view, yet which are at the same time intended to be funny. We have already established that the book is truly funny, but it remains to determine whether its point of view is truly Republican. Since the author readily admits that "Funny Republican" is an oxymoron in the public mind, it would seem a considerable accomplishment to consistently make people laugh while fervently campaigning to get Playboy and Penthouse out of 7-Eleven stores.
This, however, is a side of Republicanism that the author rejects, so he offers a new label for other like-minded Republicans, namely, Republican Party reptiles. This breed is opposed to "government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power, busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don't have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men." They are in favor of: "guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don't find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (or anything else that scares the Russkis)…" So, as far as I can tell, a Republican Party reptile is more or less a libertarian who believes in a strong national defense (or at least a strong national defense budget).
To claim, then, that these essays are written from a conservative Republican point of view is a stretch, at the very least. Not that anyone should care (except, perhaps, the FTC), since the author is a clever and gifted writer. But for the record it should be noted that most of the time one is hard-pressed to discern a particularly conservative political bent, probably because, most of the time, it's hard to discern any political point of view at all.
There are, however, a few notable exceptions. "Ship of Fools" is O'Rourke's account of a sojourn called the "Volga Peace Cruise," a 16-day trip to the Soviet Union advertised in The Nation that attracted 160 American tourists, most being "antinuke activists and peace-group organizers with sixties leftover looks." Describing his shipboard companions, O'Rourke writes: "In between palsies of fretting, they'd tell you how wonderful the Soviet Union was.…These were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.…A few passengers…were from [major leftist] organizations, but most seemed to be representing tiny peace organizations of their own. And if you didn't stick socks in their mouths right away, they'd tell you all about it."
In "Safety Nazis," the author complains of "safetyist regulatory excesses": "nowadays if a car cannot survive a drop from the Gateway Arch and emits any vapors more noxious than Evening in Paris, the federal government won't let you own it, and what they will let you own you can't really drive, because fifty-five miles an hour is the speed at which a spirited person parallel-parks, not motors to Chicago."
Occasionally the way O'Rourke describes an otherwise neutral topic betrays a particular political leaning: "After ten years of polygonal civil war and invasions and air strikes by Syrians, Israelis, and multilateral peace-keeping forces, [Beirut] still isn't as squalid as some cities that have never been hit by anything but government social programs."
And sometimes a particular political orientation can be inferred from the choice of topic: "Recently I performed an intellectual experiment. I read one issue of The New York Review of Books…then watched one evening of prime-time network television.…The comparison would, I hoped, give some clue to an ancient puzzle: Which is worse, smart or stupid?" Certainly no right-thinking liberal would make fun of The New York Review of Books.
But most of the essays reflect either no particular political orientation or, if anything, would appall anyone even moderately right-wing. This is all to the good, because the essays exhibit a remarkable breadth of style as well as substance, ranging from the decadent ("How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" and "Tune In, Turn On, Go to the Office Late on Monday," both recounting the richness of experiences with controlled substances and young girls) to the genteel ("Moving to Hampshire" and "Dinner-Table Conversation," both of which were right at home in House and Garden, their original place of publication).
An excerpt from the latter: "A good talker must have all the qualities of a good listener plus an ability to hold forth at length: to tell a fully rounded anecdote, make an elaborate jest, convey news in piquant detail, or give an unexpected coif to the feathers of reason. And a good talker must be able to do this without inspiring other guests to pitch him out a window. Such people are invaluable. They give the rest of us time to eat."
There is a touch of redneck here and there ("High Speed Performance Characteristics of Pickup Trucks") and a great deal of simply pure and wonderful creative writing. In "A Long, Thoughtful Look Back at the Last Fifteen Minutes," he uses the insipid clichés of historical journalists to describe a very short time interval in epic proportions: "This was an important fifteen minutes for America.…Some have called it the 'Me' fifteen minutes….It has not been a fifteen minutes without problems and difficulties. In certain areas it was a quarter hour of stagnation. Blacks have made very little economic progress since 8:45 this morning. Many of them don't have jobs and the rest are going to be late to work if they don't hurry up."
But O'Rourke may well be at his best with his political reportage. His recounting for Rolling Stone of the events leading up and subsequent to the Philippine elections was inspired and masterful, and may also suggest, ultimately, a reason for his eagerness to label himself a right-winger. Somehow his descriptive points of view on these and other matters seem more compelling when expressed against the backdrop of being conservative. His Republicanism, for example, did not at all inhibit him from describing former Philippine President Marcos in a decidedly non-Republican way: "Ferdinand Marcos is human sewage, an evil old power-addled flaming Glad Bag, a vicious lying dirtball who ought to have been dragged through the streets of Manila with his ears nailed to a truck bumper."
It's hard to imagine Bob Dole saying that.
Rob Kolson is a financial satirist who entertains business groups singing "The Bureaucratic Blues" and other irreverent ditties.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "No Bob Dole Here".