p.j. o'rourke, the political commentator, satirist, and bestselling author who we maintain did some of his best work for car and driver, died february 15 of complications arising from lung cancer at age 74. the world is a poorer place.
o'rourke first made his name as a regular contributor and later editor-in-chief of the national lampoon, the daringly irreverent 1970s humor magazine that helped shape american comedy for decades to come, spinning off movies, tv shows, stage plays, name-brand actors, comedians, and albums. though o'rourke's byline would go on to appear in many serious publications and on the covers of the more than 20 books he'd author, he was pretty much never serious, and the iconoclastic bent that allowed him to make fun of everyone and everything, including himself, was with him till the end. while his official political affiliation would in middle age see him become a republican with a pronounced libertarian bent, he was, by way of example, as sharp-tongued and cantankerous about his new party as he was about democrats and his former fellow travelers from the peace-and-love sixties from which he'd emerged, a full-blown american archetype, a cranky ex-hippie who loved cars and could write his pants off.
a native of toledo, ohio, and graduate of the state's miami university (he'd later grab a master's degree in english from johns hopkins), o'rourke wasn't a tech freak. rather, he spoke the language of the american road, which like many of his generation fascinated him, but with an extra acuity that followed perhaps from his father's having been a car salesman. (his mother was a school administrator.) this enthusiasm for car travel spilled over into the pages of the lampoon often, but perhaps most notably in the 1979 demi-classic "how to drive fast on drugs while getting your wing-wang squeezed and not spill your drink."
today's younger, woker readers will perhaps not be familiar with a style of writing that routinely celebrated drunk driving and sexual congress behind the wheel—hey, people, he was kidding! (we hope.) but in this old o'rourke standard, too, lies a passage that led many an aspiring car writer back in the day to put pen to paper.
"even more important than being drunk, however, is having the right car. you have to get a car that handles really well. this is extremely important, and there's a lot of debate on this subject—about what kind of car handles best. some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car. i say a rented car. nothing handles better than a rented car. you can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind. you can also park without looking, and can use the trunk as an ice chest. another thing about a rented car is that it's an all-terrain vehicle. mud, snow, water, woods—you can take a rented car anywhere. true, you can't always get it back—but that's not your problem, is it?"
while o'rourke's wide-ranging wit and biting humor would follow him, briefly, to hollywood (screenwriting chores on rodney dangerfield's 1983 picture easy money were apparently enough to scratch the itch), it would also land him assignments as a war correspondent for rolling stone and essayist for the atlantic and the wall street journal, and earn him regular spots on television (60 minutes) and radio (most recently, npr's wait, wait, don't tell me).
but we will always remember him for his car writing. a 1978 piece for car and driver, "sgt. dynaflow's last patrol," tells the story of a liquor-fueled journey o'rourke took with an english chum, humphrey, transporting a sickly 1956 buick from florida to california and breaking down each of their eleven days on the road.
"when the engine went out, we were in a desolate stretch of piney woods somewhere south of tallahassee. there was no warning. all of a sudden it was just much too quiet and we weren't going nearly as fast as we should have been. we figured it was probably the old set of points.
"there was this shack-like building about a hundred yards down the road with a couple of broken gas pumps out front and a sign that said 'beer.' it was half overgrown with swamp and looked like the first panel in an old e.c. comic but it was the only building we'd seen for twenty miles so we pushed the car over there and i went inside to borrow some tools. there were about a dozen hard-visaged, definitely unfriendly and possibly cannibalistic southern types in there, all eyeing me suspiciously. the bartender was a big, nasty-looking old guy with an enormous paunch, a flat-top haircut four inches high, and an unlit cigar turned backwards in his mouth. i got the idea that he didn't much like my looks either, but he loaned me a screwdriver and an adjustable crescent wrench.
"humphrey was all business under the hood, tinkering with this and tapping on that, i thought maybe he knew what he was doing until i realized that he couldn't find the spark plugs. buick used to put these lid things over them. god knows why. but, anyway, after we'd pried one off and given ourselves some electrical shocks, we figured maybe it wasn't the old set of points after all. maybe it was vapor lock. if you leave vapor lock alone it gets better. this is exactly the kind of mechanical problem that humphrey and i are good at, and we decided it was vapor lock and went inside for a drink."
two years later, he was again in the pages of c/d, this time in a cross-country blast from new jersey to l.a. in a ferrari 308gts.
"but best of all the looks we got were the looks we got from the ten-year-old boys. they'd be back there with their little faces pressed up against the glass in the rv back windows, and they'd see this red rocket sled coming up behind them in the $50 lane. it couldn't help but touch your heart, how their eyes lit up and their mouths dropped down, as if santa'd brought them an entire real railroad train. you could all but hear the pitter-patter of the sneakers on their feet as they ran up front and started jerking on their dads' banlon shirt collars, jumping up and down and yelling and pointing out the windshield, ‘didja see it?! didja see it, dad?! didja?! didja?! didja?! didja?!’”
gosh, we'll miss you, man.