“Driving Like Crazy” Review

28 09 2009

This book review appeared in the latest issue of the Michigan Review. Since many of you don’t read the Review regularly or at all, I figured I’d post it here, too:

Even if you’re not aware of the existence of P.J. O’Rourke, you’ve probably heard some politician or pundit parroting one of his numerous witticisms-like the HillaryCare-era quip, “if you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free,” which remains as pertinent now as it was under the Clinton administration. Or the eternally true one-liner, “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Driving Like Crazy gives us the opportunity to explore O’Rourke’s take on car keys, whiskey, and, at times, car keys and whiskey concurrently-and if he is to be believed, you can never have enough of either. This collection of essays, released earlier this year, constitutes O’Rourke’s fifteenth publication. Containing eighteen mostly stand-alone pieces, the book spans his entire career-from no-holds-barred gonzo journalist (How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink, an apt title) to a married-with-children man resisting, for his sanity’s sake, the urge to succumb to practicality and buy a minivan (Taking My Baby for a Ride). Being a compilation of essays and short articles, the vast majority of Driving Like Crazy has appeared previously in print. Fortunately, however, O’Rourke’s writing has been featured in such a varied range of publications-National Lampoon, Esquire, Car and Driver, and Rolling Stone, to name a few-that few readers will have seen all of the works contained within.

The book spans the globe just as it spans the author’s career, with nearly every chapter set in a different locale. Thanks to his deadpan humor, dry wit, and na’veté (whether feigned or genuine), O’Rourke’s tale of a spontaneous and ill-planned trip through the rural American South in a faltering 1956 Buick Special reads much like his account of a carefully planned voyage across India in a caravan of brand-new Land Rovers. Deep, insightful cultural examination has never taken itself less seriously.

Driving_Like_Crazy_PJ_ORourke

Then there are the cars. A title like Driving Like Crazy implies no small amount of reckless vehicular abandon, and thankfully, the text delivers. O’Rourke gets behind the wheel of everything from the aforementioned ’56 Buick to a rented ’67 Mustang to a variety of Jeeps to a new Ford Flex. Most of the cars, being either rentals or loaned to O’Rourke for testing, are, predictably, driven like crazy. Some actually survive; others, like the Jeeps, are shaken apart on the brutal trails of Baja California.

Despite the pages of tortured sheet metal, ruptured gas tanks, and shot shock absorbers, this book is fundamentally an ode to the American automobile at a time when, sarcastically or not, O’Rourke suggests that a dirge might be more appropriate. In the age of stifling safety regulations, ever-higher fuel-economy standards, and the government bailout of two of the country’s most distinguished automakers, he laments the death of the American car as it was-big, unapologetic, gas-guzzling, easy to fix, and, above all, fun.

One doesn’t have to be a dedicated auto nut like myself to (kindly brace yourself for this review’s requisite automotive pun) get a lot of mileage out of Driving Like Crazy. In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone unacquainted with the mystique of the internal combustion engine and the wonderful, bizarre culture that revolves around it just as soon as I’d suggest it to someone with gasoline already in their blood. You don’t have to be a gear head to enjoy this book, but it might be hard to resist rebuilding your car’s engine-or at least revving it up at a stoplight-after you’ve put it down. MR

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