BOOK REVIEW / Self-made rebel with all the right connections: ' For the Sake of Argument' - Christopher Hitchens: Verso, 19.95 pounds

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ONE WAY to judge a book is by its cover, and this one tells you a lot. On the front is a snapshot of the author sitting smoking in a cafe or pub, empty glasses strewn around him. A lighter bulges in his top pocket, his hair needs a wash and so does his shirt. His blank defiant stare and folded arms say: 'I am a rebel and I don't give a shit.' They also say (for an author who picks a photo of himself looking dissolute exercises a choice): 'I am stuck in a 1960s art-movie fantasy about being a rebellious writer who doesn't give a shit.'

Hitchens is an English journalist who lives in the United States, where he is a cult figure in progressive circles and writes for the radical periodical The Nation and for Vanity Fair. This is a collection of reviews and essays written since the mid-1980s, most of them from the last five years. There are more than 70 items, some of them very short, on everything from Trotskyism in New York, to booze and fags, to Daniel Deronda. Most are in one way or another about politics, and especially about politics in America. There is something about the puritan conscience of the liberal establishment in the United States that makes it relish flagellation, especially from a foreigner, and nobody wields a scourge with more exquisite enjoyment of the pain inflicted on his flabby-minded victims than Mr Hitchens.

The test of this kind of book is for the reader to be able to open it anywhere and be drawn into the argument: it's a test Hitchens passes time and again. There is some overlap and repetition, though. He accuses Norman Mailer of self-

plagiarism, but is guilty of it himself: on page 168 he tells us that 'another defeat would expose Labour as the party that had tried everything - everything - to please, and still not got the mix quite right'; six pages later he asks: 'And what does a party do when it has tried everything - everything - and nothing works?' But his prose is full of well-honed surprises, and has a special gift for the lip-curling one-liner. On West Coast culture, he writes of the 'decaffeinated hedonism' of Los Angeles. The British Labour Government of 1976-79 under James Callaghan is memorably described as 'a sort of Weimar without the sex'.

His method is to move between a kind of grubby demotic accessibility, scholarly erudition that stops just short of showing off, and venomous invective. He can be devilishly funny, but he is also capable of writing with acid seriousness. There are particularly good essays on the wriggles of the British government over the Salman Rushdie affair, on the banalities of Reagan and Bush, and on the dreamlike horror of Bosnia.

He is best value when the subject is squalid ('Nobody likes a bit of filth more than the present author,' he tells us). Of Tom Driberg he remarks: 'He just liked to administer free blow-jobs to the masses. How many modern members of Parliament can claim as much?' Pretension, hyposcrisy and sentimentality are Hitchens's enemies: his sport is to bite through to the rottenness beneath. 'Swiftian' might be an appropriate tag for some of his writing. But the essayist with whom he would most like to be compared is, I suspect, George Orwell. There is a similarity in interest and range, and Hitchens, like Orwell, is a non-affiliated supporter of unpopular causes, a quizzical camera, a ragger of the pompous who likes to deconstruct as well as to observe. However, there is an important difference. Where Orwell is deceptively clever at embracing his readers, and making you feel that you and he, though fallible mortals, are on the same side, Hitchens can be excluding. At his best he makes you applaud in envious admiration, or laugh wickedly out loud, but he does not make you want to side with him. This is partly because of an element of snobbery that lies oddly with his radicalism. He is keen to tell us that he knew Bill Clinton at Oxford, that the Princess of Wales's stepbrother is 'my old chum', even (by including their names on the dedication page) that his godchildren belong to famous literary dynasties.

This is innocent enough, but there is also an uncomfortable edge. When Hitchens jokes that Norman Mailer once complained of being 'the victim of a London faggot literary coterie, consisting of Martin Amis, Ian Hamilton and myself', it is only half a joke: this is boastworthy company, and you are conscious of being in the presence of a name-drop. As a reader, you have an unnerving sensation that you probably fall into one of a large number of categories of people who don't measure up.

Many of these categories merit the derisive treatment they receive from Hitchens. What diminishes his impact, however, is an inability to see human beings in the round. Politicians, for instance, don't always deserve to be regarded as the lowest form of life. If it is true that there is no profession in the world, not even the oldest, that is so full of cant and moral corruption, it is equally true that somebody has to do their job. Hitchens's impatient failure to consider this aspect, or even to attempt to understand the predicaments politicians find themselves in, is one reason why he can leave you with an increased sympathy for the person he is savaging.

It is as if there is a not-quite-grown-up element to some of his writing. Possibly he still owes too much to a 1960s nihilism which treated everybody in authority with even-handed contempt for the single reason that they were in charge. Indeed, there is a sense in which he is a kind of journalistic Emma Goldman: an incendiary bomber, an anarchic and mesmerising but destructive and sometimes undiscriminating force. You do not feel after reading him (as you often do, for instance, after reading essays by Orwell) morally the cleaner.

Nevertheless, we should certainly celebrate a writer who compels us to press our noses against the glass. 'In the non-debate over non-issues that goes on here,' Hitchens writes on the political correctness fad in the United States, 'the hands- down winner is the culture of euphemism.' As a zapper of euphemisms he has no par, and that is a good enough reason, or excuse, for finding his byline irresistible.