“I am polemical, something of a complainer, a writer who values the role of curmudgeon, who attempts to unsettle, as well as inform,” writes O’Rourke in the introduction to his new collection of essays. O’Rourke is that rarest of increasingly rare birds, a writer’s writer. He has published four novels, five nonfiction books, been a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, headed the creative writing program at Notre Dame — even blogged for NUVO.
The funny thing about writer’s writers, of course, is that anyone can read them. The only thing that sets them apart is their originality, on abundant display in this collection of O’Rourke’s short pieces about politics, contemporary culture and, especially, books and other writers.
O’Rourke brings an artist’s critical thinking to his political writing, providing him angles of attack on players from both parties that help reframe the issues in ways not available through the most mainstream press outlets. Since he’s been engaged as both political observer and professional writer with issues dating back to the Vietnam War, he also brings a valuable firsthand historical perspective to events, as well as an irreverent insider’s understanding of how the journalism business actually works. His takedown of Bob Woodward, for example, is illuminating.
But O’Rourke is especially good in his assessments of other writers and the way trends in creative writing have played out — in the marketplace and the academy — over the past 30 years or so. He sees contemporary literature within the larger social, political and economic contexts in which it is created and consumed — a situation that has changed markedly during his lifetime, filling him with rue, though never dampening his enthusiasm for the work at hand. —David Hoppe