Postmodern Emily Post


Modern Manners, by P.J. O'Rourke, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 300 pages, $16.95

P.J. O'Rourke's latest book, Modern Manners, does not describe the behavior of polite people. It deals instead with people who want to appear polite while doing whatever they damned well please—in a word, Americans.

"For most of the twentieth century," O'Rourke writes, "we Americans have preferred to ignore conventional social rites, dispense with pomp and circumstance, and set our highball glasses right on the George II sideboard without using coasters. Complex rituals, formalities, and taboos are the hallmark of civilization, and we don't have one, so what the heck."

If no modern American knows which fork to use, why bother learning? Far better, in modern times, to know the polite method of inviting people into the restroom to snort cocaine with you, or the most graceful way to vomit. "Every authority on etiquette discusses how to put things into your stomach," the author notes, "but very few discuss how to get them back out in a hurry." O'Rourke obliges.

The modern advice in Modern Manners is targeted at the part of society that styles itself postmodern, the crowd that started the traditional fin-de-siècle binge about a dozen years early. The crises facing us as the millennium approaches are different from the social situations described by Emily Post.

Take marriage. A well-mannered women's trousseau used to contain towels, linen, and the like. But in these modern times, a woman brings a different set of items to her marriage, including three cats, a Conran's sofa bed with Azuma bedspread, the complete works of Barbara Cartland, three framed drawings of unicorns, a Jane Fonda workout tape, and a bill from her psychoanalyst.

What about the wedding rehearsal dinner? "These days the honeymoon is rehearsed much more often than the wedding," O'Rourke succinctly notes. "It's not necessary to give a dinner every time you do that."

And for purely modern reasons, brides should still be given away, but only because it's illegal to sell them.

The word manners, of course, refers to people's customs and normal behavior as well as their rules of politeness. Accordingly, Modern Manners spends most of its time dryly detailing how Americans really behave rather than how they should.

Since we already know, for example, what polite hosts should stock their bars with, O'Rourke has much more fun describing what has become customary at the typical '80s party. Does this sound familiar?

2 sixpacks of Miller Lite
1 warm keg of extremely foamy Stroh's
150 half-gallon bottles of screw-top jug wine
40 bottles of gin
60 bottles of vodka
1 bottle of tonic
3 ice cubes
1 lime

Given his emphasis on alcohol, drugs, sex, and vomiting, O'Rourke's target is easy to define—the nouveau generation of wingtips, or pearls, or both. As a former editor of National Lampoon as well as a roving reporter for Rolling Stone, O'Rourke knows his readers and can be forgiven for making the assumption that they are burned-out, drug-frenzied, power-mad divorcees with bad home lives and bad haircuts. After all, most of them are.

O'Rourke's best work (short pieces compiled in Republican Party Reptile and Holidays in Hell) has a jaded, sarcaustic attitude toward whatever subject matter happens to be on his plate, from designer drugs to pissant Third World countries with bad revolutions and bad hotels. Most of his writing is first-person, free-form, and terribly snide.

Modern Manners retains that worldview but suffers slightly from O'Rourke's insistence on writing in a mock-Emily Post tone of voice rather than his own. The book reads something like an extended Mad magazine satire and is best taken in small snippets rather than read at one sitting.

But even if this is his third-best book, that is saying a lot. His hints about how to chat up celebrities like Cornelia Guest ("Gosh, Cornelia, you really make liposuction come alive!") are a scream. And God bless the man for explaining why the drug Ecstasy went out of fashion so quickly: "It made you love everybody. Loving even one '80s person was repulsive enough; loving more than one was actually medically dangerous."

In an era—or at least a book—in which dating can be described as "a social engagement with the threat of sex at its conclusion," the reigning sentiment is apocalyptic. O'Rourke's only real advice is one his readers know he takes to heart: "The world is going to hell. All we can do is look good on the trip."

T. Keating Holland is a pollster and writer in Washington, D.C.