Short take: if you aren’t an admirer of Hitchens, or don’t follow him as a detractor, this is probably not worth reading. If you follow him, by all means read it, but save your money by taking it out of the library.
After the sapience and wit of God is Not Great, I found Hitch-22 a bit of a letdown. True, this memoir has its good bits, most notably the chapter on the Rushdie affair, but it also falls into the inevitable trap of autobiography: the desire to rationalize bad decisions and embellish one’s life.
You will find, for instance, a long and unconvincing justification for Hitchens’s support of the Iraq invasion. You will read of innumerable occasions when, Hitchens modestly admits, one or another of his acquaintances dedicated a novel or poem to him. (This may reflect what he admits as his besetting flaw: insecurity.) There are many paeans to his BFF Martin Amis, and yet barely a mention of Hitchens’s wife and children. The highly-praised chapter his mother and her suicide in Athens I found rather lifeless; although—like all of Hitchens’s prose—it didn’t fail to be interesting, it did fail to live. Ditto on his chapter about his father, whom he dubs (because of his career in the Navy) “the Commander.” I’m not sure whether this reflects the distance between parents and children mediated by the boarding-school experience, but in the end one gets the impression that Hitchens is much more comfortable discussing ideas than people.
Perhaps I’m being unfair here. Besides his discussion of the Rushdie fatwa and the many cowards in high places who failed to come to Rushdie’s defense (or blamed the fatwa on his own writings), he has good tidbits on Susan Sontag, on his youthful experience in a Cuban labor camp, on his interview with Oswald Mosley, and on the many pompous twits he encountered on his way from Oxford to Fleet Street.
If I could sum up the book in one sentence, I suppose it would be: you had to have been there.
After this mild letdown, I wondered if, agreeing with much of his politics (save the Iraq business), I had overrated Hitchens’s writing. I’ve read most of what he’s written—the Orwell book, the Clinton book, the Mother Teresa book, at least two volumes of his essays, and of course God is Not Great, and remembered superb prose and incisive arguments. I therefore borrowed the last book from my host’s library and dipped back into it. And, lo, there was the Hitchens of yore: witty, intelligent, funny, and thoughtful.
Those who dismiss God is Not Great as a strident and humorless jeremiad are wrong. None of the faithful who have counterattacked—not Terry Eagleton, not John Haught, not Karen Armstrong—have produced a book with a tenth of Hitchens’s wit or writing ability. It is not Hitchens but his fleas who are strident and humorless. I invite you to reread this book (and of course to read it for the first time if you haven’t already), and if you don’t find it a good read, and a provocation to thought, then there is no hope for you. It’s my firm conviction that many of Hitchens’s critics, save those who rightly argue against his stance on Iraq, are motivated largely by his eloquence and wit, qualities which they lack but would dearly like to have.