P.J. O'Rourke, author of a number of best sellers -- including "Republican Party Reptile," "Parliament of Whores" and "Eat the Rich" -- is out with "The CEO of the Sofa" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 265 pages, $25).
It's a laugh-out-loud collection of observations of life on the domestic side by a twice-married father of two who is also a political conservative. The book is a collection of pieces previously written for some of America's most influential magazines, and O'Rourke deftly weaves them together. With a little tweaking here and there, he presents them as a series of monologues covering the period between September, 2000, and August, 2001.
In this book he appropriates, as he himself acknowledges, the construct of "The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table," by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Holmes, father of the Supreme Court Justice of the same name, was perhaps the best loved of the New England Transcendentalist philosophers of the mid-and late-19th century. Holmes, as O'Rourke says, was more humorous than either Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, more exciting then Herman Melville, "and wasn't a head case like (Walt) Whitman."
In Holmes' work, the author lives in a boarding house, using the time he spends with his fellow boarders gathered around the breakfast table to wax eloquent about a wide variety of topics. Holmes is occasionally interrupted by fellow residents whom he uses as foils for his arguments. Think of it as Aristotle having a paid shill in the agora.
Similarly, O'Rourke assembles a mix of real and made-up characters to serve as his foils while pontificating on a variety of issues from the sofa of his home in northwest Washington. They include his wife (real), his two daughters Muffin and Poppet (also real), his research assistant Max (real) and several characters from the neighborhood who are, one hopes, products of O'Rourke's fertile imagination.
Most amusing of all is the babysitter's mother, always referenced, never seen. A radical well into her second childhood, she is forever chaining herself to something weird in protest over some grievance when she is not busy making "vegesicles," popsicles made from vegetable soup.
A writer and nationally known wit with scads of money, O'Rourke is somewhat insulated from the travails of everyday American life -- but not entirely.
Consider this screed on the scourge of cell phones:
"Daddy loves cell phones because Daddy doesn't have a cell phone. Daddy doesn't have a cell phone because Daddy can't see the tiny numbers on the buttons without his reading glasses. And Daddy doesn't have his reading glasses because he left them on the shelf under the Grand Central Station pay phone, which Daddy was using to call you because Daddy doesn't have a cell phone."
On cigars, a subject near and dear to the heart of O'Rourke and many of his readers, he offers this on the occasion of the birth of child number two:
"Maybe the association of cigars with paternity has to do with masking diaper odor. Not that anyone would smoke a cigar anywhere near Daddy's little precious. But maybe cigars are an excuse for fathers to go stand in the garage when diapers need to be changed. A cigar can buy you a whole hour, as opposed to the ten minutes you get from a Camel. Or maybe cigars are a Planned Parenthood policy, a method of spacing births. As long as Dad has cigar breath, the next child is not likely to be conceived soon."
Though parenthood is a mystery to many, O'Rourke has, without leaving his sofa, solved the riddle. To be a successful parent, a man must let his wife be in charge. This is not only the essential concept of successful family life, but also, he demonstrates through an analysis of parenting books, lays out a successful plan for management of the modern workplace. The common denominator, he has discovered, is that men are really big babies.
O'Rourke is at his best when he is discussing politics. His observations are venomous to be sure, but joyously so. It is the pleasure we derive watching the pompous among us get skewered, as they often deserve to be.
"Bush and Gore are educated idiots," he writes, "members of the Lucky Sperm Scholarship Society, a small privileged class of elite Americans who have shoe-size IQs and the best educations money, power, and influence can buy. If (they) had grown up on my block in Toledo, Ohio, they wouldn't have gone to Yale and Harvard. They would have gone to Kent State. Easy to picture them there circa 1970 -- Al picking up on the hippie thing a little late, ordering his bell-bottoms from the Sears catalog, and George W. in a real National Guard unit, shooting Al."
Or the prospect of Palm Beach County, Fla. -- ground zero in the national post-election trauma -- being hit by a nuclear missile:
"The dimwit residents will think the flash of light comes from more television cameras outside. If they do figure out what's going on, they'll be dialing 991 or 119 or P*A*T*B*U*C*H*A*N*A*N."
"The CEO of the Sofa" is an enjoyable read, full of observations that strike a responsive chord. O'Rourke may not say the things we would like to, even if we thought of them, but we recognize the familiarity of the sentiments as soon as we read them.
Whether it is the collapse of the new economy or the United Nations or traveling through India, the humor of it all pours forth like water from a flooded gutter in a rainstorm. In an age where politically correct thought rules the cultural roost, "The CEO of the Sofa" is a delightfully incorrect look at a whole lot of things that someone thinks should be important. P.J. O'Rourke takes great pleasure in bursting their bubbles, over and over again -- a pleasure that we are lucky enough to be able to share.
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