Book review: ‘A Hook in Time’, by Christopher Hitchens

Why bother with a bunch of old book reviews? Hitchens’s didn’t sound like other people’s. He had none of the mannerisms of the form. He rarely praised or blamed; Instead, he made distinctions and accumulated evidence. He often barely mentioned the book he had in his hands. This must have infuriated the authors, but readers benefited from it. For him books were occasions; He picked up the parts he was interested in and ran with them. (“It’s a book review, not a bouillon cube,” as Nicholson Baker put it, responding to Ken Auletta, who had complained about one of Baker’s equally exaggerated reviews in Book Review.)

The breadth of Hitchens’ references makes you feel like, intellectually, your tires are being rotated. And he seemed to know everyone, or at least the right kind of people. If he needed to verify an anecdote from a book, in the days before the Internet, he would call the person involved, usually an old friend. Should critics be on the phone and out more often? In her review of Sidney Lumet’s film “Serpico” in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael mentioned that she had recently taken the real Frank Serpico out for a cup of coffee.

Reviewing a collection of Tom Wolfe’s journalism, Hitchens deplored Wolfe’s affectations and his conservative politics. In the 1960s, he writes, Wolfe made people “feel self-conscious about his lapses in commitment.” Hitchens came of age in the late 1960s and met Bill Clinton, incidentally, at Oxford. When it came to marijuana, Clinton didn’t have to snort, Hitchens writes, because there were always marijuana cookies and brownies on hand.

Reviewing a biography of the odious J. Edgar Hoover, you wonder how the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation still bears his name. Considering Hoover’s hypocrisies, sexual and otherwise, he writes: “I keep an idle watch on the new congressmen in Washington, and also on the electronic moralists on the airwaves. As soon as they start shouting about sodomy and degeneration, I indulge my watch with satisfaction. Soon, Congressman Snort will find himself on all fours in the Capitol men’s bathroom. …” I will draw a discreet veil over the rest of this biting sentence.

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