Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"So when does the tribute start?"

That's what I wanted to ask at the conclusion of Monday night's PEN Tribute to Christopher Hitchens, which frankly felt more like a roast than a tribute--a roast with bitter herbs.  Moderated by Ian Burima, the panel consisted of Katha Pollitt, Victor Navasky, Graydon Carter, and George Packer:  a writer he didn't get along with, an editor he had problems with, an editor who seemed out of his depth, and  a frenemy reporter.

Initial reaction: every one of them had a hobby horse, except for Packer, and each horse was designed to either trample Hitchens or knock him off some presumed pedestal.  Burima kept steering the conversation towards a discussion of Hitchens' personal and political foibles. (Does alcohol overshadow the man?  Do his political views stem from a Trotskyist vision?)  (And I wish someone had defined just what a Trotskyist vision is, besides a bird's eye view of Frida Kahlo while she's painting.)  Navasky's opening remark, when asked for his thoughts on Hitchens:  "Always have a bottle of alcohol on the table when discussing anything of consequence." Pollitt (to nobody's surprise) raked Hitchens over the coals for his misogyny, and then rattled her own Hitchensian over-the-top rhetorical sabers when she called his habit of kissing her hand "demeaning" and "disgusting."  (And then pouted and frowned whenever one of the men on the panel called Hitch courtly.)  Graydon Carter, in retrospect, seemed like one of those politicians who can't speak off the cuff without an assistant whispering bon mots in his ear (and I'm wondering whether a review of my notes will prove me right or wrong on that).  Only Packer  consistently gave tribute to the man, being even-handed enough to acknowledge Hitchens' flaws while at the same time reminding everyone of what made him the kind of man and writer who deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

I took notes, which I'll transcribe and post over the next few days, but for now, here is what Salman Rushdie said towards the end of the evening.  Rushdie sat dead center in the front row through this whole unlove-fest, and then got up at the end during the all-too-brief Q&A to make these remarks:

Can I perhaps just take a moment to pay tribute to Christopher Hitchens, which is what I thought we were doing tonight? 

(Amen, I said to myself.)

I think it’s not right to say that there are not writers who are remembered for non-fiction. 

(Mencken! Talk about Mencken!)

And I think it is right to compare him to writers of the 18th century, like Hazlitt. Like Montesquieu. Writers who were full-time writers. I don’t think it’s right to say that he’s an 18th century libertine--that’s--the word libertine was not used by George; that was added by you, Ian--and I don’t think it’s appropriate. But I think he was an excellent writer in that form--the form of the 18th century essay. And the best of his work--not all of it political--I think, for instance--such as the work you referred to, the piece about the bikini wax and so forth, and some of his funnier pieces that he wrote for Graydon, were masterpieces of style 

And I think that one of the reasons why he was so well loved, in his last years, was that the God book is actually an extraordinary piece of polemic. And I think the word “polemic” hasn’t even been spoken tonight. It’s as if people disapproved of him for having strong opinions. It was his nature to be a polemicist, to be one-sided, to be over-the-top, to be exaggerated. Christopher never did anything twenty-five percent, he did everything a hundred and fifty percent--and you could like that or not like it, but you had to deal with it. You couldn’t ignore it, you had to deal with it. He became somebody that all of us had to deal with. 

I didn’t agree with him on Iraq, I thought he was wrong about Iraq, he said he thought Iraq was going to become a US protectorate and he thought that everybody would live happily ever after there, and that was, to put it mildly, . . . wrong. But you could have that argument with him, and as you said, it didn’t affect your friendship. 

He was a remarkable man, he was one of the most brilliant men that anyone who met him would ever meet. And let’s remember that man.

Bushido On The Rocks

Dressed like a ninja
Sharp as a katana
Nodding at each order
Killing every drink

“Kai YAH!” she cries out
As her left foot lifts up
Jammed off-balance fridge door
And then kicks it closed

Eyes that miss nothing
Glances like shuriken
This one needs a refill
That one needs the tab

Ten ringless fingers
Yanking, washing, pouring
Ten little ronin
Masterless and cool

“Do not make me muddle!”
She commands a stranger
Her samurai top-knot
Firmer than a pestle

All is precision
Not a wrestled motion
Moving without thinking
Human shuttlecock

“Not a night for chatting.”
Rueful but reality
Still she makes time to
Check in on each friend

This one wants Powers
This one vodka soda
That one wags his fingers
(That one she ignores)

Barely heard music
Roar of conversation
Tsunamis of drinkers
Crash against the bar

Knee deep in neat shots
Hip deep in Hefeweiss
Fighting off White Russians
Drowning in Knob Creek

Gone is the top-knot
Face framed in brown waves
Years drop away like
Raindrops from a leaf

One against fifty
Odds are impossible
Watch her remarkable
Whittle them to naught

Hair tight in ponytail
Now she means business
Countdown to closing
Minutes pass like days

Time like molasses
Everything’s a slow pour
On her marble shoulders
Walnuts can be cracked

Slowly the barstools
Empty like a subway car
What do I owe you
Here’s where I get off

Cling-wrap the draft taps
Wipe down the service bar
Spilled beer on wood smell
Makes her want to cough

Gone are the groupies
Gone are the regulars
All that’s left is family
And the mental fog

Time for a breath now
Time for a little
Bartender yoga
Downward hair of dog

 Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells