Hitch 22: A great memoir
On December 15th, 2011, Christopher Hitchens died in Houston Texas from pneumonia, a complication of his battle with cancer. Sadly, this review written by Pat Conroy weeks ago, is being placed posthumously today in honor of Hitchens and his contribution to the world of letters.
Hey, out there,
Last night, I finished a splendid memoir written by the irascible and charming Christopher Hitchens. It is called Hitch 22, and the title reminded me of the time I found myself talking to a fascinating man at the deep end of a swimming pool in New Orleans. He turned out to be Joseph Heller. I always get a cheap literary thrill whenever I have these chance encounters on the road. I first started admiring Mr. Hitchens when he began writing his bristling, fire-eating essays in Vanity Fair. Over the years he began displaying that rarest of intellectual gifts – the ability and willingness to change his mind and do it in an orderly, well-reasoned way. He writes with a prose style that has teeth and venom and beauty. Hitchens is one of those uncommon writers who seems incapable of writing a boring sentence or thinking a banal thought.
There are surprises galore in this feast of a book, which is an intellectual treasure house and a reader’s delight. He is tender-hearted and clear-eyed in his portraits of his family and friends. I have always been attracted to male writers who can demonstrate their love and affection for women with ease yet not draw attention to themselves. In a chapter of admirable clarity, he finally reveals what goes on in those infamous British public schools that have tortured every male writer who ever wrote a novel or memoir about the English path to enlightenment. He clears up the mysteries of that charged, homoerotic environment and does it in a way that is explanatory and not a bit sensational or exploitative.
Mr. Hitchens writes about the importance of friendships as well as any writer I’ve ever read. In his chapter on his long friendship with Martin Amis, he creates a masterly portrait that made me want to be friends with both men and regret that I had once had that possibility in my life, but had failed to make the right move in that direction. Once, a lifetime away, I had been part of the creation of a movie development company, and the first book we bought for our first film was The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. I had read the book in galleys and knew a hot shot when I saw one. Mr. Amis was a young gun fresh out of the box and he wrote with verve, precision and cunning. I could have met him, and Hitch 22 made me think not doing so was one of the great errors of my life. The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.
Mr. Hitchens’ portraits of Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Edward Said and Susan Sontag are all superb and enlightening. His intellectual life and his curiosity are insatiable. As a political figure, he reminds me of the great George Orwell, and he sprinkles accolades to Orwell all throughout the book. He takes you on journeys to Sarajevo, Kurd territory in Northern Iraq, to uprising and wars in sorrowful countries around the world. Often he places himself in grave danger and he never equivocates about whose side he’s on. I didn’t agree with President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but Mr. Hitchens makes the best case for that war I ever encountered. His portrait of Saddam Hussein is nothing short of satanic. If you can read what Hitchens has to say about Hussein and not, at least, re-consider your views on Iraq, I question your capacity to read.
He is the happiest of atheists and a heretic of charming godliness. I know Southerners who have Hitch on their prayer chains after hearing about (not reading) his homage to atheism, God is Not Great. For some reason, I think these prayer chains will never succeed in leading Hitch to the steps of the Church of God. He sees that the intellectual life of the mind is the only sensible place on earth to be. When the idiot pastor Terry Jones burned the Koran, and the resulting protests among the Muslims of Afghanistan resulted in eleven killed, Christopher Hitchens was certainly not ambushed by surprise. A hell of a book.
Great love, Pat Conroy