Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Man of His Time

 Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Now this is a memoir worth reading! We are in the Age of Memoir, but so few deserve the time. Christopher Hitchens lived enough for 10 lives — he was a revolutionary, journalist, provocateur, vagabond, contrarian, essayist, raconteur, socialist, intellectual, atheist and he loved a good Scotch.

Hitch, as his friends called him, started writing his autobiography when he turned 60. The story goes that in 2009 he was surprised to see the phrase "the late Christopher Hitchens" beneath a photo of himself at an art exhibition, and he knew that the description would eventually become true. Best not to wait too long to write my memoirs, he thought. It was fortunate that he wrote quickly because about a year later, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and he died in December 2011.

Hitch was born in England but had traveled all over the world by the time he was 30. He came of age in the 1960s — the perfect time to be a socialist and a revolutionary. The book has great stories of Hitch's visits to Cuba, Argentina, Iraq, Greece, Africa, Asia, and also America. Hitch emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, and I enjoyed hearing his outsider's perspective on American culture.

One story that I liked happened while Hitch was visiting Cuba in 1968. He questioned whether writers and artists were being censored because they couldn't openly criticize Castro. "I made the mere observation that if the most salient figure in the state and society was immune from critical comment, then all the rest was detail." Later, he was told that his comments had been "counter-revolutionary," and Hitch was thrilled to be so labeled.

Hitch had a good description of his chats with American taxi drivers in the late 1960s. Back then, many cabs were driven by African-American veterans who had been to England during World War II. The cabbies would comment on how nice the English were. "For many of these brave gentlemen, segregated in their U.S. Army units, England was the first picture they ever saw of how a non-segregated society might look."

Hitch also has snort-out-loud tales of his friendships with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and James Fenton. My favorites were when Martin took Hitch to a whorehouse as "research" for a book, and Salman's gift at word games, which were frequently played when the men got together. "I boldly assert that a lot of friendships and connections absolutely depend upon a sort of shared language, or slang. Not necessarily designed to exclude others, these can establish a certain comity and, even after a long absence, re-establish it in a second."

In another chapter, Hitch downplayed stories of his excessive drinking and shared his rules for imbibing: "Don't drink on an empty stomach. Don't drink if you have the blues. Drink when you are in a good mood. It's not true that you should drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less. Be careful about upgrading to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available."

A particularly moving section was Hitch's postscript to his chapter on Iraq. He talked about Mark Daily, an American soldier who was killed by an IED. Daily had been inspired by Hitch's earlier writings about Iraq and decided to serve. When Hitch learned of Daily's death, he reached out to the man's parents, and even went with them to scatter Mark's ashes. It was a tender antidote to the stories of Hitch's contrariness.

I listened to this on audiobook and would highly recommend it to anyone who likes politics, social commentary or a lively conversationalist. Hitch has a lot of opinions, not all of which I agree with, but I loved listening to his stories. Cheers to a life well-lived.

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