I am reasonably certain that Christopher Hitchens did not intend to write a memoir that would leave readers exclaiming "O what an asshole Hitchens is!", but that's one of the effects Hitch-22 had on me. I say 'one of the effects' because this book is as alternately amusing and infuriating as its author. I've long admired Hitchens's virtuosity as a polemicist (but not as an 'intellectual,' which he isn't, despite his being anointed as such by people who wouldn't know a real intellectual if Lionel Trilling bit them on the bum) and delighted in his demolition of Norman Podhoretz (included in his superior collection of literary articles, Unacknowledged Legislation), his blistering indictment of Henry Kissinger, and his largely valid criticisms of everyone from Mother Theresa to the Clintons, and I found his bestselling atheist polemic, god Is Not Great, enjoyable and necessary although not nearly as important as Richard Dawkins's masterful The God Delusion. So even though I opposed the Iraq war from the start, while Hitchens was and remains one of its most vigorous defenders, even though I was one of those people massing against the war on Dupont Circle the evening it began (Did you hear us, Hitch, in your aerie in the DC air?), I approached Hitch-22 with an open mind and initially found quite a bit to like about it. His account of his childhood and parentage, his education at Ye Olde Birching Shoppe and Oxford, his youthful adventures in homosexuality and Trotskyism, his exploration of his Jewish heritage, his chapters on Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie--these are all very good (but it must be said that Hitchens's memoir doesn't hold even the nub of a candle to Martin Amis's Experience, which recounts some of the same incidents). Yes, there are many wonderful pages here, but unfortunately there are also many pages that deserve to be used as a rough-and-ready substitute for Charmin. These latter leaves cluster predictably in the Iraq chapter, which finds the Hitch at his self-righteous, intellectually dishonest, paper tiger-creating worst. His crude, Fox News-worthy caricatures of the war's opponents and his fawning descriptions of the deservedly disgraced Paul Wolfowitz and that international conman and Iranian agent Ahmad Chalaby deserve to finish Hitchens as a 'journalist' even if cancer doesn't do the job first. (OK, that was mean, I'll admit it. But Hitchens is a big boy, and unlike most Iraq War cheerleaders he can both dish it out and take it.) But Iraq aside--as though one could put it aside, ignore it, in any discussion of Hitchens, something akin to discussing Ezra Pound without mentioning his brief career as an Italian radio personality--but Iraq aside, and the author's curious reticencies and insufficiently explored sexuality (his perennial man-crushes, for example) also to one side, the largest problem with this memoir is the impregnable fortress wall of narcissism Hitchens has constructed around his shabby, post-Communist East Berlin of a self. The Hitchens of these pages is so rapt by self-love, so trapped in Wilde's "lifelong romance" (even the Gore Vidal of Palimpsest is a more self-critical memoirist), so much a Capote-ish look-at-what-a-wonderful-person-I-am-and-listen-to-all-the-wonderful-names-I-can-drop kind of narrator, that upon closing his book I found myself wondering if the author's back was still sore from the performance of this 422-page self-administered blowjob.
More seriously, if the former neocon court jester Christopher Hitchens is what passes for a public intellectual in America today, and if books like this--the second-rate ramblings of a second-hand mind--are what passes for intellectual discourse, then I suppose it's safe to conclude that our culture has paddled so far up Bullshit Creek that we might as well rename it the River Of No Return.