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Fast And Loose With Car-Crazy P.J. O'Rourke

P.J. O'Rourke has distinguished himself as a first-rate American wit by way of essays extolling libertarianism, travel articles describing treacherous locales and humor pieces powered by a raffish political incorrectitude. You could say that his work as automotive journalist in his new collection, Driving Like Crazy, combines these enthusiasms and themes, but the word journalist would be too feeble. O'Rourke is not a dispassionate reporter but a wild-eyed car nut. What drives his philosophy of the road is a belief in the paramount importance of fun.

To gain an appreciation of this conviction, begin by reading the riotous "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink," first published in 1979 (read it on the National Lampoon site). A reflection on the pleasures of committing senseless mayhem in the company of a tube-topped passenger, it is a virtuoso performance, mixing crude imagery and refined rhetoric. "How would your mother feel if she knew you were doing this?" O'Rourke asks of this hobby. "She'd cry. She really would. And that's how you know it's fun. Anything that makes your mother cry is fun. Sigmund Freud wrote all about this."

"How to Drive Fast" was never meant to be taken quite seriously — an admirable quality in a classic of American humor — yet its terrific distastefulness still marks it as the product of a bygone era. (O'Rourke elsewhere reminisces about the days before the "Fun-Suckers" ruled the roadways: "DUI was not yet a sin on the level of smoking or raising children with low self-esteem.") In any case, most of the fun here is good and clean, give or take some greasy tinkering under the hood and the tales of trashing minivans with baby formula and rash cream while test-driving "brat buggies."

When the author takes a back-roads rumble across America in a dying Buick — as when he races down Mexico in the Baja 1,000 and negotiates India's Grand Trunk Road in a Land Rover — the view from the window inspires gorgeous nature writing.

In a Car and Driver article, he transforms himself into a professor of "Jeepology," examining the unique Jeep culture of the Philippines, where American troops introduced them in 1944.

And in a first-person report on pathetic middle-aged suburbanites riding Harleys, O'Rourke details the excitements of the open road by way of saluting modern America herself. He believes that, in the days when travelers were subject to the whims of horses and the weather, there were hard limits to personal liberty in the U.S.A. With the private motor vehicle, we discovered real freedom. "And what's freedom for?" he asks rhetorically. You know the answer: "Freedom is for fun."

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Troy Patterson