What Happened in Baja Just Won’t Stay in Baja (And More P.J. O’Rourke)
In the summer of 1977, P. J. O’Rourke, the (possibly criminally insane) editor of my then-favorite magazine, National Lampoon, accepted his first freelance assignment from David E. Davis, Jr., who’d recently started his second stint at the helm of Car and Driver. Blissfully unaware of the car magazine genre at the time, I was smashing cars into walls for a very satisfying living at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. It would be three years before our paths collided.
I was out of work and landed an interview with Mr. Davis in August 1980. It would be wise, I thought, to actually read the mag before I barged in for the face-to-face. So I went to the library and checked one out. This is where you Google “library check out magazines” to figure out what in God’s name I just wrote. Google will not explain that the magazines in libraries are older than the ones moldering in dentist offices; the one I found was a little more than a year behind – July 1979 – but fell open to “Palm Beach Weekend,” an O’Rourke classic in which he reviewed an Aston Martin Volante. These are the lines I remember thirty years later: “If you’re paying $70,000 for an automobile, you obviously don’t have the sense God gave seafood,” and, on why he wasn’t driving the wheels off of it, “How’d you like to inform the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company that it just bought $70,000 worth of burgundy freezer wrap?” We’ll just skip the line that made me wonder what kind of magazine I was about to walk into, the line that almost shut down the post office with incoming hate mail. In fact, it could be why “Palm Beach Weekend” is the one classic that didn’t make it into P.J.’s; newly published, precious archive of some of the best automotive road-trip insanity ever written.
Driving Like Crazy (with a very long subtitle that would take way more space than even this to repeat), from Atlantic Monthly Press, is the $24 hardcover version of the stack of P. J. manuscripts I Xeroxed for my personal amusement during my five years at Car and Driver. First, I copied every one I’d missed. Then, every time an O’Rourke story was scheduled, I’d stalk the mail for the manila envelope carrying the latest double-spaced, typewritten, brilliantly crafted, badly misspelled masterpiece. I would make my own copy. I couldn’t wait to see it in print.
Although P.J.’s writing also made it into a variety of other publications (including Automobile Magazine), the stories with the lines legions of fans can recall at will were written in the decade that began in 1977 with his very first – “Sgt. Dynaflo’s Last Patrol,” about a cross-country trip in a 1956 Buick that broke every day. He trashed the South, he trashed himself worse, he drank and drove, and he wrote: “. . . the gas smell kept getting worse for thirty miles leaving Amarillo. When it eventually occurred to us to stop and look under the hood we found that . . . gas was squirting out and boiling up in little spitballs on the headers. I have no clue why this didn’t turn us into a miniature Hindenburg, not even after Humphrey gasped in dismay and let the cigarette drop out of his mouth and fall right in there.”
“Hawg Heaven” (retitled here “The Rolling Organ Donors Motorcycle Club”) detailed a road trip with three Harleys and the hottest bike of the day, the Suzuki GS1100, which “had a top speed of 140 mph and did the quarter mile in 11 seconds. Any twist of the throttle put you in danger of being left there with empty bowlegs, like a Roy Rogers figurine after the dog ate the plastic Trigger.”
“Getting Wrecked” combined a tribute to Dave Schwartz’s brilliant Rent-A-Wreck franchise with a scathing assault on the “Sargasso Sea of car-buff slime weed . . . who held the pink slips to L.A.’s auto treasures.”
P. J. hated L.A., where he lived while working on a film. He delighted in outrunning Corvettes and Porsches on a stretch of road from Mulholland Drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel in his Rent-A-Wreck 1967 289-cubic-inch Mustang hardtop “with almost all its lime green paint worn away by beach party sand, salt spray, and spilled beer.”
“I was beaten only once – by a Mexican in a Chevy pickup full of yard care tools and cheering children.” Only I remember the original as “a load of pensive children.”
Still, Driving Like Crazy isn’t just a bound collection of greatest hits. P. J.; has written new lead-ins to each story that offer fresh meat even for those who think they’ve read it all before. The infamous and ill-fated Baja road-;trip story, now titled “A Test of Man and Machines That We Flunked,” has an introduction that’s longer than the entire original crazy story. I was in the car with O’Rourke – both of us puffing away on Marlboros and wondering aloud how everyone else could stay awake without smoking – when we crested a hill and found tech editor Csaba Csere standing, dazed, in the middle of the road next to the Dodge 600, steam pouring from the radiator. “I never ducked,” he said. “I never ducked,” he repeated. He’d hit a cow, which did a horn stand off the roof and catapulted off into the pitch-black night. Which was only the beginning of a tale with at least ten variations.
This book is a must-read.