Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke (1988)

Holidays in HellMy good friend Amy is an honors student in journalism. She’s about to start her Senior Year as editor-in-chief of her college newspaper.

Anyway, something she mentioned in a recent blog post was that she’d left for college, certain that her dream was to blast through her four years, then become a foreign correspondent, traveling the world and filing stories from exotic trouble-spots.

My mind flashed back on P.J. O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell,” a book that bridges a gap between where Amy is in her life and I am in mine.

“Holidays in Hell” was originally published in 1988, as I was starting my Senior Year (I was only a freelance features writer on my college paper, though). This book is cobbled together from stories O’Rourke wrote for magazines, most of them for Rolling Stone.

Worse still—as far as making me feel old—is that I remember most of these stories when they were originally published in Rolling Stone, back in the mid-to-late 1980’s, back when I was young enough to subscribe to (or give a shit about) Rolling Stone.

P.J. O’Rourke showed me a style of writing that shaped my own, and probably pissed-off a number of my English professors. What O’Rourke did was infuse serious journalism with irreverent humor.

The journalism is very real. The stories gathered here are not puff-pieces or travelogues. The author visited Lebanon when it was a hotbed of strife, South Africa under Apartheid, Korea during violent election protests. He saw where various death squads dumped their bodies in Central America and The Philippines, and he was hit with pepper spray, tear gas, and—nearly—a bullet or two.

The humor is what separates P.J. O’Rourke from other journalists. His prose thrums with life. As impassioned as he is describing Korean student riots, he describes the Koreans predilection for spicy food hysterically (“After lunch, our breath could clean your oven,” e.g.).

The humor still got me—I laughed my ass off in probably the exact same parts I did back in 1988—but what struck me was how much things have changed since then. He toured Poland behind the Iron Curtain; Poland is free, now. He toured South Africa under Apartheid; Apartheid is no more. He describes his 1986 attempt to get to Libya after U.S. Fighters bombed there; Libya is under new management.

So much of the world has changed, now. I certainly don’t mean this in an old-fartish way like, “These damn kids today don’t know what a riot is,” but as a simple observation. In 1988, there’s no way anyone could have predicted the Arab Spring revolutions, powered by Twitter. There was no Twitter. There was no email. The only mention of computer use in “Holidays from Hell” is where O’Rourke laments the lack of a “brief summation” button on his Apple II.

This was a time when magazines and newspapers still shelled-out big money for a correspondent to provide in-depth, first-hand coverage of a major world crisis. Today, the print news media is on life-support.

These “Holidays in Hell” are beautifully preserved memories of a completely different global community. I remember Iran-Contra, Reagan-Gorbachev summits, the anti-Apartheid protests—I even remember Fawn Hall and Ollie North (good thing, too, because there are a few oblique references to them here). The point is that I remember when these historical events were current events (I got details from the world’s only 24-hour news channel, CNN (how many of THOSE are there now??)).

Amy starts her Senior Year in a couple weeks, just like I was when first I read this excellent book in 1988. When I read her piece about how she’d wanted to be a foreign correspondent, I got on the then-unheard-of Internet, and sent a copy to her then-unheard-of Kindle. Having reread “Holidays in Hell” tonight, I imagine the stories will probably seem like irrelevant history to her. I can only wonder at how dated today’s “big stories” will seem to her a quarter-century hence, and what kind of technology will have blown-past what we have today.

If I’m here in 25 years, I’m reasonably certain Amy will be running a medium-sized country (we joke that I’ll be her Leo McGarry, because I’m crotchety that way), or—more likely—that she’ll have been one of the sharper reporters covering and analyzing The World: 2014 to 2039.

Also, I have no doubt that I’ll be able to read “Holidays in Hell,” and still crack-up at “…a miasma of eyeglass-fogging kimchi breath, throat-searing kimchi belches, and terrible, pants-splitting kimchi farts.”

(Some part of me will never grow up)

Highly Recommended


About tom

B.A. in Literature, Minor in Film Theory and Criticism, thus meaning all I’m trained is to write blog posts here. Neptune is my favorite planet–it vents methane into the solar system like my brother does. I think Chicken McNuggets look like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. There are times when I’m medicated, which is why I wrote about McNuggets. Buy some today and tell me I’m wrong! Anyway, Beyond that: mammal, Floridian, biped.Good Night, and Good Luck. Besos, tom
This entry was posted in Books, History, Humorous, Memoir or Biography, Non Fiction and/or Commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O’Rourke (1988)

  1. stevebetz says:

    This is one of my favorite books and was my introduction to O’Rourke. It’s hard in these days to think of him as a “conservative” writer, but I think that’s what he would have called himself. Tremendously funny and insightful.


    • tom says:

      It’s funny. When I entered my review on “Goodreads,” it popped up with your name and five stars. I knew I liked you for some reason (other than being a mad scientist with a huge liquor closet 😉 )

      It’s uncanny the way he covers serious issues seriously, but manages to slide in laughs. In the one piece, he had the motif of “South Africans drink and…” for four or five different paragraphs. I thought that was genius. Still, the part about South Koreans and kimchi always makes me howl.


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