O'Rourke's attempts at humor often fail in face of serious war topics

P. J.

April 12, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Mr. Fesperman, a national correspondent for The Sun, covered the gulf war in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

GIVE WAR A CHANCE.

P. J. O'Rourke.

Atlantic Monthly.

288 pages. $20.95.

This time, P. J. O'Rourke has worked himself into a corner. For years, he has been funny on demand, so nowadays editors at every publication from Rolling Stone to Playboy to House and Garden seek his services when it's time for some easy yucks -- whatever the topic.

The violence of Northern Ireland? A sure Laff Riot, some editor concluded. Ditto for the fall of the Berlin Wall after years of grim oppression, the dawn of new freedoms in the former Soviet Union and, that knee-slapping funniest of all recent events, the gulf war, with its thousands of fleeing refugees and legacy of torture and lethal bombings.

The problems with such assignments are obvious: Anything beyond superficial reporting churns up material that is hardly laughable. So it is that Mr. O'Rourke is often at his best when he stops trying for laughs in "Give War a Chance," a collection of his recent dispatches, most of them previously published.

His attempts at cleverness, on the other hand, are often either too cute or too shallow, and the shallowness is usually the result of superficial and even lazy reporting.

It is one thing to simply sit back and soak in the surroundings when one is zeroing in on the fat, easy target of the U.S. Congress. That's what Mr. O'Rourke, the former Johns Hopkins student and Baltimore radical, did in his last book, "Parliament of Whores," and his cynical sweep across Capitol Hill was all the funnier for its slap-- romps and unfair generalizations.

But taking a similar approach in covering the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled into Jordan after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 just doesn't work.

First, he makes fun of the refugee traffic on the desert highway from the Iraqi border toward Amman. After seeing some Mercedes and Chevrolets whiz by, he quickly writes them off as "affluent" folks leaving only "because their bank cards wouldn't work in Kuwaiti cash machines anymore." He then enjoys a chuckle at their expense over suitcases that slip from the roof of one of these heavily loaded cars, cartwheeling down the highway "like a rectangular Olympic gymnast, until it exploded -- an underwear bomb."

In an afterthought, he mentions there also are some refugees packed, standing, into open trucks. As for the hundreds of thousands who were suffering without enough food and water in the tent cities beyond the border checkpoint, Mr. O'Rourke writes a scant summary paragraph but offers nothing firsthand, after citing "the Jordanian border guards who refused to let me pass." Plenty of other journalists found a way to get out there, and their accounts were nothing to laugh about.

Mr. O'Rourke also seems at a loss when describing the joy of the crowds that milled about, around and through the newly opened Berlin Wall. His descriptions are flat, and his humor is mostly a scattershot rampage against liberalism and a justification of expensive U.S. weapons systems. Eventually, he admits to bursting into tears as he is struck with the sudden realization that the Cold War is over and won.

It all seems a bit too pat, and whatever effect he creates is ruined on the next page, when he shifts gears and concludes, "In the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes."

Mr. O'Rourke seems to acknowledge his awkwardness in writing about scenes of such momentous happiness, when he states, "Ideology, politics and journalism, which luxuriate in failure, are impotent in the face of hope and joy."

But the book is not without its strengths. His description of the disaffected liberal Americans who flocked to support Daniel Ortega during Nicaragua's elections -- derisively dubbed "the Sandalistas" -- is an inspired attack of savage wit.

Even stronger are his piece on Northern Ireland, where he offers a clear-eyed look at the absurdity of a culture where bombings and random galloping danger are accepted as an inevitable part of life, and his profile of Dr. Ruth, the TV guru of good sex, which works best for its sobriety on a topic where it would be so easy to succumb to snickering asides and eighth-grade humor.

In the nine dispatches from the gulf war, which close the book, he strikes eight flat notes -- including his account from Amman -- before getting it right with a fine piece from a liberated Kuwait City. It is again his reporting -- which, for a change, is aggressive, though there was certainly no shortage of good material for anyone with a notebook in Kuwait City in those days -- which makes his observations hit home.

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