O’Rourke humors students about life, travels, the world

By Greg Dunlap

For someone who describes himself as “impotent in the face of hope and joy,” P.J. O’Rourke seems surprisingly optimistic about the fate of the world as the 80s come to a close.

O’Rourke, who spoke at NIU’s Sandburg Auditorium Nov. 29 to promote his new book “Holidays in Hell,” is the head of the Foreign Affairs Desk at “Rolling Stone” magazine. He has also written for “American Spectator” and held several editorial positions at “National Lampoon” over the course of ten years.

Most of O’Rourke’s pieces deal with areas of the world which are in states of extreme chaos. Through his writing style, which many people have described as very similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s, he takes you to these places and explains just how ludicrous they really are…generally in a very cynical way.

However, in an interview before his appearance last Wednesday, O’Rourke seemed pretty positive about the way the last decade has turned out. He often referred to the spread of democracy across the globe and the equal decline of communism as significant in changing the course of the decade.

He also just got back from Berlin which he described as “a really cool scene. It’s like you just wanted to do a fox-trot on that wall and go, Nyah nyah, it didn’t work, did it? Real stupid idea, guys.”

O’Rourke described the 80s as,”a decade of recovery… recovery from a lot of the nonsense of the 60s and 70s. The 60s and the 70s were two really nonsensical decades, especially in the context of Western civilization.”

When asked in what ways specifically, he said, “They were faltering, uncertain, weak, annoying…I think somewhere around the end of the 70s we began to realize that all the hairbrained garbage, all the zen nonsense…all the stuff that went contrary to common sense just didn’t work, and we’d really better just get back to basics and work things out.”

This rambling intercourse is typical of the O’Rourke style. As far as his writing goes, he said his biggest influences were the people he worked with at “National Lampoon.” “People like Michael O’Donahue and Doug Beard were probably the most important influences in my writing,” he said.

“Also, I was greatly influenced by the beat poets…they had a certain rhythm. Those guys could spin jazz riffs with their words,” he said as he drummed out a certain beat in the air. Continually during this discourse he snapped his fingers for an emphasis on the kind of syncopation the beat poets inspired in him.

What about the constant comparison to Hunter S. Thompson? Was there any direct influence from that direction? “Well, I definitely like Hunter’s style, and was probably influenced by him somewhat although not directly.”

Later he added, “Hunter and I are very different writers in a really crucial, basic way. Hunter goes essentially to normal places and brings a really bizarre and original sensibility to those things.

“I mean, it bears remembering that ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is really about a police chief’s convention…which he never makes it to! What I do is bring a pretty ordinary sensibility to really bizarre events,” he said.

In the past years, while going through decidedly dangerous areas such as El Salvador, Lebanon and South Africa, O’Rourke claims that although he has been in a few hair-raising situations, they probably weren’t the ones you’d expect to be the most dangerous.

“The danger is usually of accident or of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…probably the most dangerous situations were not when I was most scared,” he said. “The most dangerous situations were times like when I was just wandering through the countryside in rebel controlled areas in the Phillipines because the probability of being caught in a crossfire or stepping on a landmine is so great. Something you wouldn’t even be prepared for.”

Although he’s been a journalist for the last twenty years, O’Rourke claims that he doesn’t have any advice for someone aspiring to do the same. “I just kind of stumbled into one thing after another and I don’t think there’s anything to be learned from my career,” he said. “I guess I can advise people to be in the right place at the right time, but its kind of hard to follow up on.”