Monday, June 02, 2014

“Hitch-22”– Book Review



Recently, I finished reading “Hitch-22”, the memoirs of journalist, author, gadfly and one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century, the late Christorpher Hitchens. 

For all of the risks and controversy he experienced throughout his far-too-short life, Hitchens appeared to play it somewhat safe in writing these memoirs.  Normally a more daring man, Hitchens refused to reveal who he really was when given the opportunity to do so – or at least that appears to be the case for the overwhelming majority of the book.  The very beginning chapters and the final chapter are the few times we are ever truly given a chance to learn personal information and insights about Hitchens.  The rest of “Hitch-22” unfortunately reads like a collection of his essays; if the book was published in that context, perhaps I would’ve been less disappointed – but given that these were his memoirs, I had considerably higher expectations. 

Early on, Hitchens shares background about his childhood, including his strict father, a Captain in England’s navy and his mother, who proved to be the more intriguing of the two.  Leaving her husband for another man, she eventually committed suicide once Hitchens had grown; after her death, Hitchens is shocked to learn that she was Jewish, therefore obviously making him partly Jewish.  This new way of viewing himself helped to shape how he in turn viewed the rest of the world for the remaining days of his life.  Much later, Hitchens reveals he has a brother, with whom he never got along. 

Throughout much of the book, Hitchens talks endlessly about the various acquaintances he’s had and experiences from being sent around the world’s many hotspots as a war correspondent.  It would seem that Hitchens is more comfortable writing about other people than he is writing about himself; that would certainly explain the absence of personal information.  If you are looking for tales about his love life, his relationship with his wife and children or other peeks into the man’s personal life, then I guarantee you that you will be sorely disappointed. 

This of course is not meant to suggest that “Hitch-22” isn’t well written.  How could any book by this author be anything other?  Hitchens is his usual caustically funny and sarcastic self, it’s just that he’s rather stingy with the background details.  Mostly, he focuses on his professional life and concentrates on the metadata – information about the politically oriented articles this journalist has written over the years.  Clearly, the self-insight this man has chosen to disclose in this book is simply that he is what his work is, nothing more and certainly nothing less.  Nothing else is anyone’s business. 

What we do know about Hitchens already even before having read this book is that he smoked extensively and drank way too much.  In fact, one of his most insightful and humorous lines in “Hitch-22” is when he advises, “cheap liquor is a false economy”.  Truer words have never been spoken.  But did his excessive drinking ever get him in trouble?  Did he ever seek treatment for alcohol abuse?  Sadly, he has taken any such information to his grave, if indeed it ever really existed in the first place.  There is no dearth of war stories about actual wars; war stories about his antics during his non-working hours won’t be found here.

Do admirers of Hitchens come away from “Hitch-22” learning a good deal more about this man?  Unfortunately, no – or perhaps more accurately, not nearly enough.  The saying is, “always leave them wanting more”; in this case, “always leave them wanting” may be a more precise description of these memoirs for Hitchens’ fans. 

Hopefully someday, another writer will take on the immense task of composing a biography of Hitchens that is more worthy of the great man’s memory than this book.  He certainly deserves the tribute. 


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