I wasn’t even aware he was suffering. Maybe I’d simply fallen awhile out of that cheerful loop in which the spinning was tolerable because he’d been there to make you laugh, the better to prevent you from wishing to commit murder, manslaughter, mayhem, mincemeat, or My Mother, the Car.
P.J. O’Rourke, the funniest non-sportswriter in America, lost his fight against lung cancer Tuesday at 74. Back in 2008 he’d announced he was diagnosed with treatable, survivable rectal cancer. It almost figured, sadly. Fifteen years after he beat one pain in the ass—very different from the ones he beat with scolding joy sticks regularly in his writings—he couldn’t find a way not to run out of breath.
I suppose if he had any sporting passion, it was cars, if not necessarily NASCAR. (He seems to have liked shooting golf and ducks once upon a time, as well, but we’ll forgive him for now. For the ducks. You get dinner out of that and it doesn’t cost you club memberships and green fees.) He once gathered up a passel of essays about cars into a splendid anthology. Its title alone could have been a single paragraph:
Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehucular Hell-bending Celebrating America the Way It’s Supposed to Be—With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every Carport, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn.
Most writers would kill, maim, or demand the American return of the Smart Car in return for receiving the ability to write one actual paragraph half as springy or funny as that single book title. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to wish a Cadillac Escalade in every carport. I’d wish every carport a 1959 Mercedes-Benz fintail sedan.
Why? Because my beloved Aunt Beatsie owned one. In midnight blue. She owned and drove it for almost thirteen years, I think. She kept that car in immaculate running, looking, seating, and driving condition. Then she traded it in for a 1972 Chevrolet Impala. That was like trading Willie Mays for Willie Montañez. And America needs consistent reminders that baseball teams aren’t the only ones prone to the fart of the deal.
Actually, I take something back. O’Rourke was something of a NASCAR fan. “Oh, Jesus,” he wrote (in “NASCAR is Discovered By Me,” republished in Driving Like Crazy),
that stupendous noise, that beautiful and astounding sound—not the flatulent blasting of the drag strip or the bucket-of-puppies squeal of tiny Grand Prix engines, but a full-bore iron-block stroked-out American symphony of monster pandemonium. Exhaust notes so low they shake the lungs like rubber bell clappers in the rib cage and shrieks of valves and gears and push rods wailing in the clear ands terrifying soprano of the banshee’s wail—I could not leave my earplugs in, it was too beautiful.
Well, that didn’t make him a terrible person.
David Harsanyi, a senior writer for National Review, remembers a conversation with O’Rourke the only time the two ever met. He remembers it because he didn’t raise as a subject the time O’Rourke turned him down for a book promotional blurb in an e-mail reply to his request. “This has nothing to do with high standards of personal integrity,” O’Rourke began. “It’s just that I live in fear that I’ll lavish praise upon a work that somewhere, deep in its unread-by-me manuscript, claims that Pope John Paul II headed the conspiracy to murder Natalie Wood—or some such.”
The elegies I’ve read from those who knew him well enough touched invariably on his personal charm, kindnesses, and in-person wit that was at least equal to his written wit. In writing, of course, O’Rourke evolved from a National Lampoon semi-libertine (he edited that once-august repository of ribald ruckus once upon a time) to the kind of libertarian who suffered no fools gladly regardless of their side in the ideological zoo’s subdivisions.
He roasted left and right on behalf of the simplest political philosophy: Keep your meathooks to yourself and mind your own business. He also phrased it with a little less of the equivalent of a ball-peen hammer in an address to the libertarian Cato Institute where he served as its H.L. Mencken Research Fellow: There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.
But I had the honour of receiving a small brush of his kindness a little over three years ago, by way of American Consequences, the online journal he co-founded and edited until his death. It was my only exchange with the man, ever, and he didn’t even have to fear any claim about any actress’s murder by any pontiff or anyone else.
After the 2018 mid-term elections, in a “Letter from the Editor” he titled “Demented Politics, Lunatic Markets,” O’Rourke wrote, “If the 116th Congress were the World Series and Trump was the umpire, he’d send both teams to the showers so that he could be the pitcher and the batter and throw every strike and hit every home run. And he’d also want to be the only hot dog vendor in the stadium.”
I couldn’t resist sending him an e-mail comment about that. And, as things turned out, O’Rourke couldn’t resist publishing my comment in the journal’s next issue.
My comment: “Longtime fan, first time writing about an AC article. Reality check: If Congress were the World Series and President Tweety the umpire, the Series would have been the Baltimore Orioles against the San Diego Padres in Ebbets Field. And Tweety would have pitched, caught, homered, owned the concessions, named himself the Series MVP, and declared the Giants and the Dodgers had damn well better move back to Harlem and Flatbush and start building Edsels again. Yours cordially . . . “
“Jeff,” O’Rourke replied in print, “I bow before your superior mastery of the sports metaphor!”
Well. I never drove fast on drugs while getting my wing-wang squeezed without spilling my drink. But I was handed high praise from the man who still drove fast when (his words) the drugs were mostly Lipitor, the wing-wang needed more squeezing than it used to before it got the idea, and spilling his drink was no problem since he kept the sippy cups from when his kids were toddlers and left the baby seat in the back seat so that, when he got pulled over, he looked like a perfectly innocent grandparent.
“Without sports metaphors,” O’Rourke once wrote, “American journalism would experience, as it were, sudden death.” Based on twenty-one books collecting around a thousand essays (I could be short there) that instructed while amusing and delighting, the man who bowed to my superior mastery of the sports metaphor should be recognised as American sociopolitical satire’s all-time home run champion.