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A HITCH IN TIME: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration, by Christopher Hitchens

There was a period in the late 1990s or thereabouts when Christopher Hitchens’s byline was, or seemed to be, stamped in every respectable magazine and newspaper published in English. The Nation had his biweekly political columns. The London Review of Books and Newsday (where he wrote weekly) had the bulk of his book reviews. He loitered in Condé Nast Traveler and The New Statesman and the TLS and The Atlantic and The New York Times Book Review and Slate and The New York Review of Books as if they were dive bars. Vanity Fair, where he had a monthly column, had the good sense to simply point him at things. The American South, for example. Or his own Brazilian bikini waxing. And his own waterboarding.

Much of Hitchens’s fugitive material has made its way into print, sometimes in block-size collections. (The blockiest at nearly 800 pages is “Arguably” from 2011, the year of his death.) But some of it has not. A few years ago, I received in my inbox a bootleg assortment of his Newsday reviews, which remain unpublished. And here now is “A Hitch in Time: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration.”

These are book reviews and diary essays written for The London Review of Books between 1983 and 2002. None has previously been anthologized. The pieces are split almost evenly between political topics (Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, the Oklahoma bombing, Nixon and Kennedy, Kim Philby, the radicalism of 1968) and literary, academic and social ones (Tom Wolfe, the Academy Awards, Salman Rushdie, P.G. Wodehouse, spanking, Gore Vidal, Diana Mosley, Isaiah Berlin). These slashing pieces often attracted angry letters, a few of which are printed here. Hitchens’s rebuttals are printed, too. They remind me of Kafka’s injunction, in his diaries, to “use the attacker’s horse for one’s own ride.”

It is no accident that this miscellany ends in 2002. That was the year Hitchens, previously a self-described “extreme leftist,” came out in favor of the invasion of Iraq. He broke with The Nation, The London Review of Books and many of his old friends. “The evening sky crimsoned from all the bridges he burned,” James Wolcott writes in this collection’s introduction. Wolcott refers to the post-Iraq War Hitchens as “Hitchens 2.0.” The essays here return to us the original, classic flavor.

Why care about a pile of old book reviews? Hitchens’s didn’t sound like other people’s. He had none of the form’s mannerisms. He rarely praised or blamed; instead, he made distinctions, and he piled up evidence. Often, he barely mentioned the book at hand. This must have infuriated authors, but his readers benefited. For him, the books were occasions; he picked up the bits that interested him and ran with them. (“It’s a book review, not a bouillon cube,” as Nicholson Baker put it, replying to Ken Auletta, who had complained about one of Baker’s similarly rangy reviews in the Book Review.)

The breadth of Hitchens’s references makes you feel that, intellectually, you are having your tires rotated. And he seemed to know everyone, or at least the right sort of people. If he needed to check an anecdote from a book, in pre-internet days, he would call the person involved, usually an old friend. Should critics get on the phone, and get 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 plummy conservative politics. In the 1960s, he writes, Wolfe made people “feel self-conscious about their lapses into commitment.” Hitchens came of age in the late ’60s, and he knew Bill Clinton, glancingly, at Oxford. When it came to marijuana, Clinton didn’t have to inhale, Hitchens writes, because there were always pot brownies and biscuits around.

Reviewing a biography of the odious J. Edgar Hoover, he wonders how it can be that the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is still named after him. Considering Hoover’s hypocrisies, sexual and otherwise, he writes: “I keep an idle watch on new congressmen in Washington, and also on the electronic moralists of the airwaves. No sooner do they start bawling about sodomy and degeneracy than I contentedly set my timepiece. Soon enough, Congressman Snort will be found on all fours in the Capitol men’s room. … ” I will draw a discreet veil over the rest of this pungent sentence.

Hitchens had that quality, rarer than it should be, of knowing what to notice. In a review of Gore Vidal’s memoir, “Palimpsest,” he reminds us that Vidal wrote: “I should note that the only advantage for a child in having an alcoholic parent is that you acquire, prematurely, quite a bit of valuable data.” Spying Henry Kissinger in the Sistine Chapel gawping at the Hell section of “The Last Judgment,” Vidal commented: “Look, he’s apartment hunting.”

Hitchens wrote quickly. He was known to get up from his own dinner parties, knock out an essay in under an hour and return to his seat. Occasionally the haste shows; a few of these pieces end up in the weeds. “A Hitch in Time” is prime Hitchens nonetheless. His joie de guerre is everywhere apparent.

What more of Hitchens is out there? The Newsday reviews deserve to find a home. They too are filled with candor and dissent, and are intellectual without being academic. Hitchens was sui generis. He made most other book reviewers, to borrow Dorothy Parker’s words about the drama critic George Jean Nathan, “look as if they spelled out their reviews with alphabet blocks.”

A HITCH IN TIME: Reflections Ready for Reconsideration | By Christopher Hitchens | Twelve | 336 pp. | $30

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