Holidays in Hell by P.J O’Rourke

Holidays in Hell is something of a crossover between a travel book, political reportage and P.J O’Rourke telling the world what he thinks of it. It’s loud, obnoxious, crude and quite funny in a snobbish, outspoken 80’s kind of way.

The basic premise of Holidays in Hell is that P.J O’Rourke, self-declared ex-liberal and now fanatical right wing zealot, travels the world to all of the war zones, police states and trouble spots that the times could provide, making the most of each far flung location to make himself feel happier about living in the good old US of A.

P.J O’Rourke travels to the civil war of Lebanon, tours Sandanista Nicaragua and hangs out with the IRA in Belfast. He helps immigration officials bust some Mexicans trying to sneak across the border, and spends the weekend at Heritage USA, a born-again Christian resort run by television evangelists. Fair play to the man, he definitely went to the edge and back.

P.J O’Rourke is actually not a bad guy, he recognizes barbarism and injustice where he eventually sees it and believes that killing people isn’t that nice a thing to do. The reason that he’s so deeply unlikeable is that he is so blatantly and unnecessarily spiteful and crude in a way that is only designed to get himself more attention – the classic journalistic trick of taking one step up by putting someone else down. He’ll typically say something like:

“The world’s travel destinations are jam-full of littering Venezuelans, peevish Swiss, smelly Norwegian backpackers yodelling in restaurant booths, Saudi Arabian businessmen getting their dresses caught in revolving doors and Bengali remittance men in their twenty-fifth year of graduate school pestering fat blond Belgian au pair girls.”

Things like bad teeth and body odour belong to the rest of the world for P.J O’Rourke and his basic point is that everyone else would like to be just like America if they only could, but they can’t and that’s what all the fuss is about as they whine about it and invent things like communism and liberal points of view because they can’t afford Nike trainers.

On the other hand, if you can get through O’Rouke’s petulant bigotry he can also be very pertinent and to the point, mainly because he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of what he says. When visiting Jerusalem, for instance, he comes up with a bunch of one liners and observations that are as true now as they ever will be.

After observing the informal atmosphere at an Arabic mosque where people lounged around and chatted as they waited for the next sermon to come out of the loudspeakers, he comments:

‘It had never occurred to me that someone might want to just come and hang out at a religious service.’ Shortly afterwards he notes that ‘In the Holy Land, God comes with the territory. And though I don’t suppose the Muslims would like to hear it, Israel, too, had God as standard equipment.’

A few of the chapters in Holidays in Hell are devoted to P.J O’Rourke doing his bit for the Cold War by making fun of communism and, in particular, Russia. O’Rourke takes great delight in playing to the crowd and the lowest common denominator by referring to Russia as ‘the idiot step-brother’ to Western civilisation and parodies the protests of the Russian apologists by saying things like ‘we don’t wet the bed any more’.

P.J O’Rourke does the same thing with liberals in his country, or indeed with anyone who doesn’t believe in a strong free market economy backed up by piles of Nukes. And if you don’t like it, well, what does he care? He’s on the winning side after all – Go USA!

But again, if you can get past the nasty, sometimes racist comments of O’Rourke then Holidays in Hell can be quite an entertaining, informing and occasionally, enlightening read. Most of the crises covered are now historical events and that in itself is interesting – how situations that seemed way beyond any kind of resolution could have just faded away to allow new ones to dominate the headlines.

P.J O’Rourke is a thoroughly unpleasant writer but a good one and Holidays in Hell is a book filled with lots of nasty and pointless attitudes but is often a good book for all that.