Category Archives: Christopher Hitchens


I teach fiction classes for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, which is awesome.  For my last class in the current session I’m teaching, my regular return student, Anabel Graff, who’s also awesome, convinced the class to do the thing where everybody thinks of some weird word or phrase, and then everybody writes a little storylet involving all the words/phrases.  The words/phrases that had to be included were:


Car trouble

Agenbite of itwit

Barrel of hay

Cecilia Babbage


Here’s my piece.  It’s kind of funny, and I figured what the hell, I’ll post it on this blog.  Enjoy.  Or don’t.  Whatever.

The Whippersnapper

(Some Hideously Clichéd Situations Involving a Barrel of Hay, in the Tense of Present)

By Benjamin Hale


“God!” says Cecilia.  “I’ve never felt so alive!”

“Me too, baby,” says the barrel of hay.  “Me too.”

It is a torturously hot day.  The desert wobbles hazily with heat waves all around them.  Hopeful, presumptuous vultures reel in their gyres overhead.  They are sailing, fucking sailing, doing about ninety-five down Highway 35.  The backseat is loaded with Hefty bags stuffed full of hot cash, as they have just robbed Texas First National.  A messy job.  Shot two men dead in the getaway.  Figure they have about twenty-five minutes to pilot Cecilia’s now-late husband’s midnight-blue Caddy across the border before every pig in the Lone Star State picks up their scent on the radio.  The barrel of hay is at the wheel, Cecilia in shotgun with her bare feet kicked up on the dash, the wind winsomely whipping her hair into a flurry.  They are in a car, and they are in trouble.  Big trouble.  But somehow, she’s never felt this good in years.

Cecilia Babbage turns to the barrel of hay.  A few stray strands of hay are blowing out of the top of the barrel in the wind.  Goddamn, this barrel of hay is the sexiest thing she’s ever laid eyes on.  The ruggedness of the rough-hewn staves.  Even the barrel of hay’s flaws turn her on.  The multiple felony convictions.  The knothole in the barrel’s side, through which she can see clear through to the hay inside him.  The missing rivets in the hoops.  The bung hole.

“Barrel of hay,” she says.  “I love you.”


All told, agenbite of inwit has had better days.

“You’re fired, inwit,” said the boss, arms akimbo, belly sagging, cigar wet and fat between his chomping teeth.  “Clear your desk!”

Lousy stupid boss, agenbite of inwit grumbles miserably on his drive home.  Long commute.  Guess this is the last time we’ll have to do that.  The cardboard box half full of office supplies sitting on the passenger seat beside him bucks and rattles over the bumps, looking as pathetic and forlorn as agenbite of inwit feels.  Agenbite of inwit is not looking forward to explaining to the wife why exactly he’s arriving home in the middle of the day.

He parks the car in the garage, but does not get out right away.  Delaying the inevitable.  His head is a swarm of nasty thoughts.  Financial worries.  Debts.  Mortgage default.  Kids will be in college soon.  He rests his forehead against the steering wheel and listens to the feeble ticking of the engine cooling down.  Briefly, he catches himself wondering how long it would take to die of carbon monoxide poisoning.  He is a failure.

Regret.  Remorse.  These things practically define agenbite of inwit.

He takes the keys out of the ignition and enters the house.

Right away, something seems definitely not right.

“Hello?” he calls.  His voice echoes off the white walls.  “Cecilia, I have some bad news.”

Where the hell is she?

Going up the stairs, agenbite of inwit feels his feet growing slower and heavier with each step, as if gravity is condensing with his ascent.

He hears noises.  Coming from the bedroom.

Oh God.

The noises are unmistakable.

Agenbite of inwit stands in the hallway before the closed bedroom door.  For a long time.  Trying to decide what to do.  He knows the gist of the situation—but not the particulars.  Does he really want to see this?

Sick curiosity gets the better of him.

He opens the door.

The room is hot—moist with sex, as steamy and reeking as a rhino pen.  The windows are fogged.  His wife, Cecilia, née Babbage, is sprawled across the bed, on her hands and knees, her fingers clawing at the sheets as if for dear life, her face twisted into a grimace, an expression of ecstasy so intense it almost looks like a wince of pain—an expression he knows well, but has not seen in years.  Legs spread as wide as a four-lane freeway, she proffers herself, arching her ass into the air, while, kneeling behind her, a barrel of hay slams in and out of her like a jackhammer.  The bed wobbles and creaks, knocks against the wall.  Their wedding photo on the bedside table is lying on its face.

Slap, slap, slap, slap, go the glistening globes of her sweaty ass against the coarse wooden slats of the barrel of hay.

“Oh, Cecilia,” says the barrel of hay.

“Oh, barrel of hay,” says Cecilia.  “Yes, yes!  Harder, harder!”

And then the barrel of hay looks up, and notices agenbite of inwit standing in the doorway.

Agenbite of inwit cannot believe his eyes.

How could she?



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Filed under Christopher Hitchens, evolution, Literature, Morality, Nerds, Power, Religion, Sex, Writing

de Waal on Morality

First, the usual apologies for not posting anything on this blog for a while:  Sorry!  Now that that’s over with, I strongly suggest reading Frans de Waal’s piece for the New York Times, Morals Without God? It’s a characteristically measured, humane and absolutely brilliant take on why we don’t need religion to give us morality, and a good antidote to all the infuriating crap that’s been written about the Marc Hauser folderol recently.

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Filed under Apes, Christopher Hitchens, Environmentalism, evolution, Frans de Waal, Monkeys, Morality, primatology, Religion, Uncategorized

Christopher Hitchens on literary production and music

My friend Max Neely-Cohen recently told me about an interview with Christopher Hitchens in which he talks about the connection between writing and music.

Christopher Hitchens and I share at least three things: a publisher, a love of Saul Bellow and a strong dislike of religion.  Every once in a while I would get into arguments with my ex-girlfriend about Christopher Hitchens.  She thinks he’s an imperialist, misogynist pig, and I think he’s funny.  And extremely fucking smart.  He sways way out of line on some things, such as his continued support for the Iraq war and his needlessly polemical assertion that women aren’t funny.  But even though I strongly disagree with him on certain subjects (and strongly agree on others), no public intellectual is more energetic or more fun.  His boozy, boisterous, roaring nastiness somehow feels warmly old-fashioned to me, as in, this is how we used to do it back in the good old days, before we had to play nice and try not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  He’s undergoing chemotherapy, and I wish there were an equivalent of “my prayers are with him” for atheists that sounds as heartfelt and genuine, but there just isn’t.  Anyway, the fact that he wrote the forward to my edition of The Adventures of Augie March solidified my respect for the man.

But he says something really interesting about prose fiction and music in this interview that Max pointed out to me.  Here’s the relevant part, shaved down a bit:

HH: Your memoir is soaked with names and stories of these memorable and significant contributors to fiction. But you wrote at Page 275, “I soon realized that I did not have the true stuff for fiction and poetry, and I was very fortunate indeed to have contemporaries, several practitioners of those arts who made it obvious to me, without unduly rubbing in the point, that I would be wasting my time if I tried.” How did they do that, Hitchens?
CH: Well, by their mere existence. I mean, they didn’t warn me off or anything. But when I was young, I knew I wanted to write. I knew it was all I wanted to do, and all that more or less I was able to do as it comes to that. But anyway, it was more it chose me than I chose it. And at university and later, I knew a lot of people who would, I mean, at that stage, I could have written a poem or a short story. And I guess, even in a current reduced state, I probably still could try something of the sort. But I was very lucky in meeting people who did it passionately and devotedly, and who just by osmosis, in other words, merely by reading their stuff and talking it over with them, and sometimes being shown it in early forms, I thought now wait a minute, they have a, there’s an X factor in what they can write that I don’t possess. And I have in my book a theory as to what that is, by the way. I don’t know if you remember it, but the distinction between people who can write prose and fiction and poetry, and those who can, should stay with the essay form, I think is this. All my friends who can do it have musical capacity.
HH: Oh, I remember now, yes.
CH: In one form or another, they can either play, or they can appreciate, or they can describe a musical event in a fairly educated way. Since I was very young, in fact, the first thing I found that I really, really, really couldn’t do was play a musical instrument at any level, or understand musical theory or notation. It wasn’t that I was bad. No one ever says they’re good. It was I couldn’t do it. It was like being dyslexic.
HH: Well, you also say you have an incapacity for chess and mathematics.
CH: Yes, I’m deformed. I’m very short in all those departments. And those, I find, generally cluster, the ability at chess and math and music. So I thought okay, I’ve only got one side of the brain, I keep forgetting which one it is, that works. The other is sort of walnut-sized. I think I’d do better to stay with the essayistic form.
HH: Are you aware of anyone who lacks that musical ability who is also a great novelist?
CH: Well, I get any leisure, I’ve been encouraged to develop this theory, because it seems that there must be something to it. I mean, you know, Shakespeare is full of music, for example, so is Proust. Nabokov is a very strong test. He didn’t like music. He didn’t like having it played to him. But he knew quite a lot about it and appreciated it. The more one goes into it, the more it seems like quite a useful, possible theory. But I’ve only got to its very crude adumbration so far.

I think this connection is fascinating, though I’m not sure if I agree with it.  I once heard Charles Baxter say something along similar lines about Thomas Mann.  There’s also James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, to name a couple examples of musically inclined writers off the top of my head.  I personally have never been musically inclined either, though I wonder if some of that has to do with simply not trying to play it at an early enough age.  That stuff runs in the blood.  I do love music, though.  I’m pretty baffled by the idea that Nabokov “didn’t like music.”  To me, that’s like saying Nabokov didn’t like flowers.  What’s not to like?  I love a lot of music, and I don’t like a lot of music.  But, as Danny Kaiser once said, “I must agree with Nietzsche that life without music would be a mistake.  It’s a mistake anyway—but it’d be a worse mistake.”  Also, I’ve recently been reading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.  It’s a masterpiece of written music.  Check this out:

The travellers then scattered apart for a bit about the wilderness of the undergrowth till they had filled their pockets with fruits and sorrels and studded acorns, the produce of the yamboo and the blooms of the yulan, blood-gutted berries and wrinkled cresses, branches of juice-slimed sloes, whortles and plums and varied mast, the speckled eggs from the nests of daws.

There’s more liquid music in that paragraph than in most songs.

And here’s a great Onion article on Hitchens.

By the way, I ganked that photo of Hitchens from a Christian blogger who began his post on Hitchens thusly:

This man is a devious liar out to claim souls for Satan. … He will convert you into an Atheist and within a week you’ll be running around your town punching old women in the face.

I would be honored if someone were to one day say the same of me.

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Filed under Christopher Hitchens, Flann O'Brien, Literature, Music, The Onion, Writing