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
By P.J. O’Rourke, Atlantic, $24.00, 258 pp.
The American car business has been made even more unpredictable by an infusion of hope and change, but here's one guarantee I can confidently make: In 30 years, no one will be writing nostalgic books about all the love they had for what President Obama piously proclaims to be “the cars the American people really want.”
In fact, even under Government Motors and the benevolent rulership of The One, a throwback muscle car, the Chevy Camaro, is generating the most excitement for what used to be America’s largest private corporation.
In his rollicking new book, 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 libertarian satirist P.J. O’Rourke writes about the cars Americans really love.
Unfortunately, they are the cars the opinion elites really hate — or at least don't want the rest of us to drive them.
O’Rourke blasts these “funsuckers” as responsible for the demise of the American auto industry by subjecting it to the death of a thousand cuts long before General Motors and Chrysler let Washington behind the management wheel.
But while O’Rourke in his prologue takes out after the funsuckers and the safety Nazis who made the American car their particular target, that only makes up about 10 percent of Driving Like Crazy.
The rest is a heady mix of adventure writing, car geek talk and travelogue. Driving Like Crazy is largely a memoir of wild driving experiences that illustrate what the funsuckers want to take from us: the sheer joy of abusing machinery and burning fuel.
Cars, O’Rourke contends, are about freedom, and that’s what the funsuckers really resent. It’s just too hard for busybodies to control people who can hop into a mode of individual transportation and go anywhere at anytime — especially if getting there is half the fun.
And motorcycles? Well that’s just freedom squared — with, or without a helmet. (Though it strikes me that preventing head injuries is the most demographically counterproductive thing liberals have done since encouraging abortion in communities where Democrats receive 90% of the vote.)
Like any good rock thrown into a herd of pigs, this one has produced a squeal. The loudest protest to this celebration of gas-guzzling, speed, stunts and road trips is the self-satirical shriek provoked from Neil Genzlinger, in the New York Times Book Review:
“An easy way to solve the global warming problem: take away P.J. O’Rourke’s car keys. Or, more accurately, go back in time about 30 years and take them away. That’s the span covered by the writing collected in 'Driving Like Crazy,' whose sprawling subtitle is all you would need to indict this aggressively conservative libertine gonzo satirist for crimes against humanity’s habitat. Presumably O’Rourke made it so long in the hope that a few extra forests’ worth of trees would have to die to print it.
“Yes, this book is a monument to slash-and-burn living, glorifying old cars whose miles-per-gallon ratings read like shoe sizes and indulgent off-road races conducted in fragile terrain. The thing is, you’ll hardly hear the cries of the rare lizards and cactuses being ground to extinction under O’Rourke’s tires because you’ll be laughing too hard. Sure, he’s personally responsible for the impending death of our race and planet, but at his best, as he is for about two-thirds of thisvolume, the guy’s hilarious.”
If the perpetually indignant Mr. Genzlinger could laugh through his grievances, just think how much fun any normal red-blooded American is likely to have reading this book.
Still, O’Rourke’s opening chapter (whose title is too rude to repeat here) has something to offend everyone. It’s a reprint of an article a much younger P.J. wrote for National Lampoon about how the automobile liberated Americans to do dangerous, rude and lewd things in both the front and back seats. While he follows it up with a smackdown of his younger self — and a confession that most of the exploits he hinted at were youthful braggadocio — many readers are likely to find the former more obnoxious than the latter is insightful.
It’s in the next chapter, "Sgt. Dynafo’s Last Patrol," that Driving Like Crazy hits its stride, as O’Rourke recounts a cross-country trip in a 1958 Buick Special undertaken for a sister publication of Car and Driver.
The chapter is a love letter to backroads America, as O’Rourke and his driving companion stop in seemingly every small town on their route and find friendly tinkerers willing to help them jury-rig their old car back onto the road. “The Buick ran perfectly right, up until it didn’t,” he writes.
O'Rourke's expresses deep affection for big old cars, small-town diners (and their waitresses) and the era when you might have had to stop and fix your car more often, but at least you could fix it yourself. This easily is the most enjoyable car ride through Americana since Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel took off for California.
Modern-style Americana is the theme of O’Rourke’s reluctant visit to NASCAR. His big-city prejudices quickly tumble, however, to Southern charm, big engines, free enterprise run amok and the best family-friendly party on the planet. And, oh, yeah, he enjoyed the racing, too. O’Rourke concludes:
“The South is what we’ve had all along in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country — fun, danger, real friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy tough people. After all, America is where the brave crazy tough people came to do as they damn well pleased. And NASCAR weekend pretty much covers all the everything. ...
“In the South, you can still feel that loony American hybrid vigor and special USA camaraderie. … People still drink, still smoke, still have guns and believe in a personal God who listens to them. They’re not worried about the future. This county didn’t come from people who worried about the future. It came from people who whupped the future’s ass.”
While O'Rourke doesn't always spell it out, Driving Like Crazy at heart is a tribute to that spirit. Whether it’s riding Harleys across country, racing down the Baja off-road in indestructible tricked-out trucks or using the same terrain to “test” the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Driving is an ode to Americans doing what they damn well please and the freedom that makes it possible — or, at least, once made it possible.
“I have discovered the middle aged, overfed, comfortably well-off man’s road to inner peace. (And it has nothing to do with India.),” O’Rourke writes. "The secret is driving vintage automobiles too fast.”
And even if it involves the brakes failing while driving down a mountainside too fast, his enthusiasm is so infectious it will be hard for anyone who isn’t a funsucker on the Obama’s Auto Task Force or who writes for the New York Times to argue with him.