O’Rourke’s boomer punchlines are mostly ordinary, lack punch
P.J. (Patrick Jake) O’Rourke is a very funny guy who unfailingly has made us laugh since 1973, when he joined and then guided National Lampoon, the American satirical magazine that had a great run before flaming out in 1998. A journalist and author of 17 previous books, he is the king of one-liners, the Oscar Wilde of our times. One of his favourite lines, from 1993, is still fresh today in American political circles: “If you think health care is expensive now, just wait until it’s free.” He so consistently writes zingers — usually at the expense of politically correct liberals and the herd of independent thinkers — that he is the most-quoted living writer in the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations. But just because he can be funny about anything doesn’t mean that he should be. His latest book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Isn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again), is a case in point. The title is a tipoff. It overreaches, trying to squeeze a gag out of a tired concept boomers themselves had grown weary of at about the time they realized scoring drugs meant getting a prescription for blood thinners. The central idea of The Baby Boom is compelling: The boom generation was the first ever to be allowed to be children — right into middle age. The result is a fairly rich, educated cadre of pacifists, who might not be making love so much anymore, but they aren’t making much war, either. Or at least that seems to be the working idea.
It’s hard to tell; so much of the writing is geared to set up punchlines that the narrative thread is lost. It’s unclear what The Baby Boom is trying to achieve, beyond a payday. Much of the book revolves around O’Rourke’s experiences growing up a boomer. And that’s too bad, because O’Rourke’s experiences were as ordinary as the experiences of the vast majority of boomers, who were never part of the minority of hippies who went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. His friends, aunts, uncles, parents — all were as ordinary as everyone else’s. Punching up the ordinary with one-liners doesn’t make it any less ordinary. “The 1960s was an era of big thoughts,” he writes. “And yet, amazingly, each of those thoughts could fit on a T-shirt.” Very droll. But so what? O’Rourke is at his best when he tackles substantial material with wit. Parliament of Whores, an examination of the government in the United States, or Eat the Rich, a globe-trotting examination of economics and economies, are fascinating reads, and would be page-turners even without the humour. But The Baby Boom is humour without substance — a page-plodder, meat without bones, sort of like those processed chicken wings that you don’t have to chew on. Gerald Flood is the comment editor
of the Winnipeg Free Press.