- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

DRIVING LIKE CRAZY
By P.J. O’Rourke
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 258 pages
REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

P.J. O’Rourke is a very funny guy who makes serious political, cultural and philosophical points. Those who’ve sampled his previous 11 books — including “The CEO of the Sofa,” “Give War a Chance,” “Eat the Rich,” and “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut” — already know this. As do those who’ve read his irreverent journalistic pieces in Esquire, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review, Forbes FYI, et al.

It takes a dull soul indeed to read a P.J. O’Rourke book without gaining a few sharp insights as well having a swell time. Readers looking for more such insights and laughs will not be disappointed by “Driving Like Crazy.”

Mr. O’Rourke is in the line of satirists, humorists and polemicists that includes Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. He’s as adept as these worthies at using the devices of ridicule, exaggeration, outrageous comparison and bombast to make his points. And many will say he gets more big things right than either of these. There are also dashes of Tom Wolfe, Florence King and even Dave Barry in the O’Rourke presentation.

But while Dave Barry’s areas of humorous inquiry tend toward such subjects as alien booger-heads, Mr. O’Rourke takes on world events and even philosophical issues such as his funny but insightful analysis of Adam Smith in 2007’s “On the Wealth of Nations.”

Mr. O’Rourke analyzes, dissects and occasionally skewers from the libertarian/conservative point of view. He’s a reformed hippie who didn’t miss the last chopper out of the Sixties. He matured with a vengeance, but still knows how to have a good time, and how to provide a good time for his readers. His analysis is of a different sort. No policy wonk is our P.J. His first serious attempt to study and explain government came in his 1991 book “Parliament of Whores,” in which he gave this economical take on the conservative/libertarian stance on government:

“I’m not sure I learned anything (about government) except that giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

And there’s this advice from the same volume: “This book is written from a conservative point of view. Conservatism favors the restraint of government. A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.”

“Driving” is slightly different than Mr. O’Rourke’s previous books in that it’s limited to a single subject: cars. The son of an Ohio Buick dealer, the author has had a lifetime love affair with cars, especially American cars. The book is a mix of older automobile pieces written for such magazines as Car and Driver, Automobile and Esquire, along with more contemporary pieces.

With articles ranging from the late Seventies to the early days of the Obama administration, readers can see Mr. O’Rourke moving from a talented but callow youth, prone to over-the-top and sometimes obscene foolishness, to the mature and insightful but still funny writer he’s been for more than two decades.

The pieces in “Driving” cover various races, rallies and test driving Mr. O’Rourke has been privileged to be covering on an expense account. These articles have allowed him to drive some really neat cars in interesting and beautiful places, such as Northern California, as well as austere and poverty-stricken places, such as the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, India and Kyrgyzstan. These are rides worth taking, even for readers who are not (as Mr. O’Rourke confesses to being) “a self-confessed car nut.” The pieces are rich with the deft, sometimes knee-slapping O’Rourke descriptions, as well as a few insights per chapter.

Even while writing about cars, Mr. O’Rourke still throws some sharp elbows at the political left, the dreaded “Fun-Suckers” in O’Rourke parlance, who he believes are bleeding the fun and vigor out of American life through regulation. He writes, “Pity the poor American car when Congress and the White House get through with it — a lightweight vehicle with a small carbon footprint, using alternative energy and renewable resources to operate in a sustainable way. When I was a kid we called it a Schwinn.”

Mr. O’Rourke defends American cars that have gotten snarky press over the past few decades. He even stands up for what he calls “sport futility vehicles,” while at the same time having some fun at their expense. He laments what he sees as a government takeover of the auto industry that, he says, will lead in time to conditions in which “engineers and designers will be hired because they’re related to the governor of Illinois.”

“Driving Like Crazy” is a ride worth taking, even for readers who don’t know an oil pan from a frying pan (not to worry: Mr. O’Rourke spends no time on mechanical ephemera) and don’t care to know.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.