Sunday, June 21, 2009
This Father's Day, I'm in the unenviable position of telling my own dad that he was wrong. As a child of Detroit, born in Henry Ford General Hospital, I've heard all my life that I should have dropped the writing career to become an engineer. "The Big Three are always hiring," my 69-year-old father would occasionally tell me. He still buys a new fully loaded Mustang with "sport package" every other year.
Well, I never thought I'd see the day come when journalism, a beleaguered industry if there ever was one, looked like a more secure prospect than building cars. What a shame.
Like me, P.J. O'Rourke grew up around the car business. Born in Toledo, Ohio, an hour south of the Motor City, his family owned a Buick dealership. His cousin would go on to run the Ohio Car Dealers Association, while O'Rourke would go on to become a world-famous political satirist and journalist. But cars remained in his blood, a passion he indulged by taking long road trips on four and two-wheeled vehicles alike, writing about them for magazines such as Car and Driver, Rolling Stone and Esquire.
His latest book, Driving Like Crazy, collects and updates 18 of these stories. The span covers the arc of O'Rourke's life, from convertible guy to SUV guy, and provides some wonderful contrasts between the younger and wiser O'Rourkes.
"Name me, if you can, a better feeling than the one you get when you're half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you're going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street?" he writes in "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your ... [ahem] Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink." O'Rourke wrote that in the early 1970s for National Lampoon.
Today's version is titled: "How to Drive Fast When the Drugs Are Mostly Lipitor, the ... [ahem] Needs More Squeezing Than It Used to Before It Gets the Idea, and Spilling Your Drink Is No Problem If you Keep the Sippy Cups from When Your Kids Were Toddlers and Leave the Baby Seat in the Back Seat so that When You get Pulled Over You Look Like a Perfectly Innocent Grandparent." About the only thing that stays the same from the earlier piece is his advice about what car handles best: "Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car," his younger self writes. "Nothing handles better than a rented car." (No surprise, he later profiles the founder of Rent-a-Wreck.)
Elsewhere in this treat of a book are moving homages to NASCAR, SUVs, Jeeps and the American car in general. But mostly there are road trips: Michigan to Indiana on a Harley, Canada to Mexico in a Jeep, across Baja and California in races, and through Pakistan and India in a Land Rover. His traveling companions range from Houstonian Michael Nesmith (of the 1960s band The Monkees) to his own children. As with almost all of O'Rourke's work, it's easy reading, and he's just as good, if not better, at cracking wise about cars and driving as he is about liberal politics.
Here he is on the driving dynamics of a Mercedes M-class SUV, which he admits is really a minivan: "The M-class rode like your boss' executive office chair, steered like the prize dressage horse owned by your boss' wife, and stopped faster than your paycheck would if you got caught naked on any of these things."
He's still got it. Fortunately for us, he chose journalism over being a Buick dealer. If the latter had been the case, he'd probably be out of work, and we wouldn't have this wonderful collection with which to reminisce about the heyday of Detroit.
It's hard to think about anyone ever getting as passionate about a Prius (or Insight or Volt, for that matter) as O'Rourke (or my father, for that matter). He remains a fan of the growling, gas-guzzling, big American roadster, may it rest in peace.
Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of PublishingPerspectives.com and covers the South for Publishers Weekly.
Driving Like Crazy
Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending, Celebrating America the Way It's Supposed To Be – With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every Carport, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn
(Atlantic Monthly, $24)