P.J. O’Rourke has never appeared to set much store by politeness. He was, after all, the National Lampoon editor who, in the 1970s, ran a contest that exhorted men to send in pictures of their girlfriends naked with buckets over their heads. More recently, in articles for Rolling Stone, he has thrown decorum to the winds on countless occasions—pointing out, for instance, that his fellow visitors to Jim and Tammy Bakker’s Heritage U.S.A. “all had huge bottoms, immense bottoms…and what leisure suits! My button-down shirt and chinos…made us stand out like nude calypso dancers.”
It may come as a surprise to some, therefore, that O’Rourke’s latest venture is an etiquette book titled Modern Manners. But stay calm, P.J. fans—the modern master of bonzo journalism, the man the Wall Street Journal once called “the funniest writer in America,” has not gone soft. Subtitled An Etiquette Guide for Rude People, O’Rourke’s opus (updated from a 1983 version) offers the sort of helpful hints that would send Emily Post screaming for her smelling salts. O’Rourke on sex: “Never do anything to your partner with your teeth that you wouldn’t do to an expensive waterproof wristwatch.” On gentlemanly attire: “A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.” In short. Modern Manners is O’Rourke doing what he has always done: making hilarious, insightful, often vicious fun of the world and all its inhabitants. “This book is really about how people act in modern society, and how I don’t care very much for it,” he says.
O’Rourke’s own behavior has not always been to everyone’s liking. In magazines like Harper’s and Rolling Stone as well as four collections of essays, he has established the journalistic persona of a latter-day Hunter Thompson—a hard-drinking, womanizing, eternal Republican frat boy or, as he labels his kind in his 1987 book of the same name, “Republican party reptile.” (“We think like conservatives,” he writes, “but we drive a lot faster.”) And though liberals dazzled by his wit and his willingness to trash politicos of every stripe have dared to hope that it’s all right-wing posturing, O’Rourke, 41, insists that he is very much as he writes. He drinks more than he should, though not as much as he used to. “I’m getting older,” he says, “and it takes too long to recover.” He belongs to the National Rifle Association because he believes that “guns are the ultimate bulwark against government misbehavior.” He likes fancy cigars, fast cars and young women. (His current girlfriend is 24.) He has taken his share of drugs. (“My last extensive drug use was in Beirut in 1985—it wasn’t exactly a just-say-no environment.”) And he voted for Ronald Reagan, twice. “I’m really serious about conservative politics,” he says.
He hasn’t always been. Born in Toledo to Clifford O’Rourke, a car dealer, and his wife, Delphine, a housewife, Patrick Jake O’Rourke came of age in the ’60s and responded to that turbulent era as many of his peers did: He became an ardent lefty. “I was never a Democrat,” he says. “I went from Republican to Maoist and then back again.” O’Rourke also credits the spirit of the times with his decision, while still a student at Miami University in Ohio, to become a writer. “The ’60s were great because you could put anything down and say you were a writer,” he recalls. “It was a decade utterly without quality control.”
After college O’Rourke went to work for the now-defunct Herald in Manhattan and then for Harry’s, a leftist paper in Baltimore. It was there that his liberal leanings were squelched for good when a group of Maoists occupied the paper’s offices. “They thought we weren’t radical enough,” says O’Rourke. “They were doing the very thing we worried about the police doing.” The ’60s ended for him that day, and he did not mourn their passing. “People forget that it wasn’t all body-painting,” he says. “There were endless political arguments and a tremendous amount of earnestness.”
Earnestness was not a danger at the National Lampoon, where O’Rourke took his talents in 1972, helping to hone a brand of humor he once described as “offensive, very aggressive…. Our kind of comedy says, ‘I’m okay, you’re an a—hole.’ ” But by 1980, it had begun to pale. “We had been like children pressed up against a window making faces at the grown-ups,” O’Rourke says. “I realized I was getting a little tall for that and should be inside eating dinner.”
That didn’t mean he gave up starting rhetorical food fights, though. After a stint as a Hollywood scriptwriter, O’Rourke returned to New York and began turning out free-lance articles that were nearly as iconoclastic as his Lampoon work had been. Reporting from South Korea on the demonstrations organized for the 1987 elections, he wrote: “I was looking at this multitude and I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, they really do look alike…. They’re hard-headed, hard-drinking, tough little bastards, The Irish of Asia.’ ” The “little bastards” complained, and O’Rourke was chastened. “The only thing that’s ever really hurt was the charge of racism,” he says. “It was certainly not what I meant. I got hate mail and death threats—all for trying to be honest about what it’s like to be a dippy American honky facing a Korean political rally.”
O’Rourke’s friends maintain that all charges of racism—and sexism and general maliciousness—are off the mark. “He can be vicious and nasty, and he strikes the pose of a reactionary, but some of that is just shtik,” says the New Republic’s Michael Kinsley, who worked with O’Rourke at Harper’s. “He’s an anarchist with a heart of gold.” Amy Lumet, granddaughter of Lena Home, discovered the same thing when the two began dating last year. “I had pretty much been told Republicans had horns,” she says. “But he was this nice, regular human being.” They now shuttle between apartments in New York City and Washington, D.C., where Amy is completing a fine arts degree at American University and O’Rourke is researching a book about government bureaucracy. But the pair try to spend as much time as possible at O’Rourke’s 15-acre spread in Jaffrey, N.H. There, at any rate, O’Rourke is more likely to entertain than offend. “The residents of Jaffrey think it’s a better show than Return of the Jedilo see a New Yorker try to get a porcupine out of the barn with two oven mitts and a broom handle,” he says. “And what better thing is there in life than bringing mirth and merriment to those around you?”
—Kim Hubbard, Dirk Mathison in Jaffrey