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Foibles of a Well-Traveled Family

'Holidays in Heck' — P.J. O'Rourke strikes again with his sardonic wit.

One of my favorite observers of the social and political scene is back with more.

P. J. O’Rourke offers fresh travel suggestions and observations in his new book Holidays in Heck. The title is a take-off on his jewel of 23 years ago, Holidays in Hell, in which he traveled to “Lebanon, the West Bank, the Soviet Union, apartheid-era South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc.” as a “trouble tourist,” that is, a correspondent ‘sightseeing’ at wars, riots, rebellions and other “monuments to human folly.”

The acid title is pure O’Rourke — his other books were titled Parliament of Whores (about the U.S. government), Give War a Chance, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut, Driving Like Crazy (a Midwestern kid’s – he’s from Toledo, Ohio – love affair with the car), and On the Wealth of Nations (his riff on quotes from Adam Smith’s classic on the Dismal Science). Suffice it to say O’Rourke is irreverent and in my opinion often very funny whether or not you agree with him.

Holidays in Heck finds him 60-ish, with “a happy marriage and cute kids … too old to keep being scared stiff and too stiff to sleep on the ground.” So he decided to write about places he, and usually his family, went for fun. Of course, “there are rules about travelling for fun. The first rule is to find the most crowded airplane on an airline that regards its customers as self-loading freight … . Passengers must be very fat, hold babies on their lap, and make sure the infants are suffering from painful ear infections …. Everyone, insist on having a conversation if I’m trying to read and also sneeze and cough frequently.”

When his wife suggested a family ski vacation, perhaps at Gstaad or Aspen, he suggested instead that they save money by going to “a place that gets snow almost every day of winter and has the added advantage that I’m from there,” that is, Ohio. Lest you laugh at a ski trip to a state devoid of mountains, it turned out very well. Ohioans are nice, the resort had “a steak house worthy of a state full of cows” plus a cigar bar serving single-malt Scotch. In fact, O’Rourke says “Ohio has better ethnic food than New York City, for a simple reason. The more enterprising immigrants to America – even the O’Rourkes – realized that Ohio was a better deal than the slums of Manhattan. And one of the enterprises of the more enterprising immigrants was to fix dinner.” Contrast the O’Rourke’s flight home from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, stuck in a line behind a reggae band whose drums brought check-in to a total halt. His friend “Antoine went to buy a bottle of rum and came back twenty minutes later” to report “The airport is full of people and every duty-free shop is closed.” The conclusion — “The French are well advised to worry about competition.”

But the worst of his horror stories was about the Venice Biennale, the grand international modern art show. The horror wasn’t Venice (my own favorite city on earth) or even air travel. It was the art itself. He allows that “Like most sensible people you probably lost interest in modern art about the time that Julian Schnabel was painting broken pieces of the crockery that his wife had thrown at him for painting broken pieces of crockery instead of painting the bathroom and hall.”

It was a true international horror show — “The Czech pavilion had a lot of ball bearings on the floor. In the German pavilion people had been hired to yell at you. The Icelandic pavilion was made from twigs and branches. Icelanders respect nature so much they’ve given their beavers MFAs.” From this, though, O’Rourke had a clever idea, this show was of real social utility because “all the awful people whose oeuvres I endured have something to keep them busy. In another era such crackpots would have been excluded by sheer lack of skill and knowledge from any involvement with the fine arts, the way Hitler was. He retreated to grubby beer halls, compensating for his thwarted ambitions by concocting insane demagoguery. It wouldn’t happen today. Hitler’s complete artistic incompetence would find a welcome home at the Biennale.”

In other chapters, O’Rourke visits the Galapagos Islands (to see “Republicans evolving”) and the World War II memorial in Washington, examines “riding to hounds’ in England, visits an Airbus 380 under construction in Toulouse, takes his wife hunting on Brays Island, SC; takes a solo horseback tour of Kyrgystan, visits the Field Museum in Chicago and is appalled at the ‘political correctness’ changes since his grandmother took him there as a kid, and then takes his wife and kids to Washington. Two of his kids were born there — where he and his wife Tina used to live — but this is doing it as tourists in the usual 92 degree heat.

Tina’s reactions to the Smithsonian’s collection of First Ladies’ Inaugural gowns — “If I were to take a stylish Martian woman through that exhibit backward, starting with Michelle Obama’s off the shoulder bedsheet and winding up with Abigail Adams, the Martian woman would be convinced that I was showing her the story of a society’s gradual development of sophistication and good taste.”

Bottom line: Holidays in Heck is a hoot!

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