Christopher Hitchens's "Hitch-22," reviewed by Diana McLellan

By Diana McLellan
Sunday, May 30, 2010; B01


A Memoir

By Christopher Hitchens

Twelve. 435 pp. $26.99

What a guy. At Oxford, Christopher Hitchens pumps the Fist O' Protest and bellows "The Internationale" -- against the Vietnam War, provincial English hairdressers who won't cut the hair of black people, segregated cricket teams. He knows, and blabs, that Bill Clinton took his dope when they strove together, or at least at the same time, among those dreaming spires. (Not inhaling! Gobbling it in brownies, like Alice B. Toklas!) He has his scrotum waxed and submits to waterboarding for Vanity Fair -- not, alas, at the same time. (Full disclosure: Hitchens was the only critic to dump on my quickie first book, "Ear on Washington," back in 1982. He was a newbie, wild to be noticed at the Nation. I forgive him.)

He acid-washes Princess Di and Mother Theresa in articles. Maggie Thatcher spanks him. He's bosom buds with Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Ian McEwan, Clive James, James Fenton. (Who? Oh, right. That guy, the poet.) He whores in a horrible brothel with his best chum, Martin Amis. He wriggles into Cuba when it's wicked and almost meets Che. He hits the nastiest global hot spots. He bloviates the naughtiest things he can think of on American TV, oblivious to the impact of his home-hacked hairdo and stained English teeth, convinced that nobody notices he's pie-eyed.

The unflagging author, lecturer, journalist, "contrarian," television gasbag and longtime Washington intellectual pit bull of the left -- who fell out with most of it over his support for the war in Iraq -- has been doing his best to stir up excitement here since his '82 arrival, publicly declaring war on everyone from Henry Kissinger ("a war criminal") to God ("not great").

But Lord, my heart goes out to the lad. He grew up largely in Portsmouth, England. That's a provincial seaport where admirals lie thicker on the ground than used condoms. (Reader: I lived there. Three very, very long years.) He was the son of a failed midranking officer in the Royal Navy and a far-too-chic Mummy, exotically named Yvonne. He adored Yvonne, and she him. She hid her family's Jewishness from him and his brother, and even from her husband, the commander. And she issued two memorable edicts: "The one unforgivable sin is to be boring," was the one that took. The other, touchingly, was, "If there's going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it." To that end, the Hitchenses scrimped to send their blue-eyed boy to a "public" school -- actually a stolid Methodist outpost unheard of by the smart "Brideshead Revisited" set. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Methodists sing the very best hymns, and perhaps helped inflect the author's rolling prose.)

But then came Oxford. There, he was so busy inciting to riot that he scraped through with a third-class degree. Why does he hate Bill Clinton so much, considering they barely brushed elbows? Mostly, he suspects that the former prez was the CIA's snitch on American hell-raisers there.

"Hitch-22" (ghastly title) is a fat and juicy memoir of a fat and juicy life, topping 400 pages. As you plunge in for your Zelig-like wallow in the past century's zeitgeist, you begin to shiver: My God, didn't this guy leave anything out? Here's the terrible and tragic 1973 suicide of his beloved Mummy, via pills, in an Athens hotel room with her dreary defrocked-vicar lover, violently dead by his own hand. Here's a cuddle with a beau at boarding school. Here's a dab of introspection on what some call his "bromance" with Amis. (Of course, he began to hate Martin's father, the great author Kingsley Amis, when Kingsley got old and boring. Good thing that won't happen to him!) Here's his charmless admission that he prefers American girls to English ones because they put out without a lot of upfront argle-bargle. Here are the sophomoric word games played with his very highest-brow cronies, such as substituting the f-word for "love" in song titles.

His artless self-revelations convey a certain careless elan: "I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin [Amis] carnally. (My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.)"

But the truth is, for the memoir of a Trotskyite George Orwell worshiper, "Hitch-22" (ugh) has a humongous memory hole. Where's his wife of eight years, Eleni Meleagrou? He dumped her in 1989, when she was pregnant with their second child, for the elegant Carol Blue, whom he'd met at an airport. Where's his old Washington soulmate, former New Yorker writer and Clinton confidante "Cousin" Sidney Blumenthal, whom he accused of lying during the Clinton impeachment trial?

It's been said by unkind people that an honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought. So is an honest journalist one who, once bamboozled, stays bamboozled? Call me naive -- please! -- but I'm floored that the great dirt-digger still clings to the certainty, peddled by Paul Wolfowitz and Ahmed Chalabi and long since discredited, that the late Saddam Hussein was unseated for his tyranny and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Tyranny? Has Hitchens seen what we're still sucking up to? Most tyrants, of course, aren't squatting atop a quarter of the world's known oil reserves. Even Alan Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir that it was "politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil."

Maybe now that Hitchens is 60-something and says he drinks "relatively carefully," he'll run this one through his little gray cells one more time. By the way, "relatively carefully" to him is terribly spartan: just a Scotch and Perrier at lunchtime, followed by half a bottle of wine, and then the same again every evening.

"Alcohol makes other people less tedious," he observes. It does. Pour yourself a stiff one, fasten your seat belt and enjoy this bumpy but never boring ride.

Diana McLellan's most recent book is "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood."

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