A Fake’s Progress

Beautiful Things: A Memoir
By Hunter Biden
Simon & Schuster, $33, 272 pages, ISBN 9781982151119

There are  people whose lives simply run off the rails. Sometimes it is due to bad luck. Sometimes it is the circumstances of the world at large. And sometimes it is all their own work. Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is definitely in the third category, although he spends a good part of this book trying to claim that he is in one or both of the others. It is hard, reading Beautiful Things, to know whether you are supposed to laugh or cry.

True, there were tragedies in Hunter’s life, which he recounts in the first dozen pages: the loss of his mother and sister in a car accident, the slow death of his brother Beau from brain cancer. He claims to have been especially close to Beau, who was the ever-rising star of the clan. Hunter’s respect for his brother’s memory, however, did not stop him from having an affair with Beau’s widow. And later her sister. The astonishing thing is that he saw nothing wrong with it. He never understood why his first marriage collapsed.

Even before Beau’s death Hunter seemed bent on self-destruction. Crack cocaine was his drug of choice although booze also figured prominently. He admits that he simply loved the high. There are lengthy chapters detailing his binges of drugs, drink and sex: “riding bareback on a rocket ship” is how he puts it. He is hardly the first person to slide into multiple addictions but there cannot be many who started with so many advantages and embraced the fall so voraciously. He explored numerous ways to clean up but his heart was not in it. He says that meeting the woman who would become his second wife put him on the road to sobriety. Well, let’s wait and see.

How was this life of vice and indulgence, of expensive hotels and more expensive prostitutes, paid for? Putting it simply, people kept giving him money. He says that he was eminently qualified for a board seat with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, although he fails to explain how. Likewise, a procession of shadowy Chinese firms threw funds at him, for reasons that are unclear. The publisher of Beautiful Things gave him an advance of US$2 million with little information on what the book would be about.

Hunter is unsurprised by the largesse, merely assuming that people like him as much as he likes himself. He suggests that the money from Burisma, in particular, allowed him to attend to Beau during the final stages of his illness. It is a nice sentiment, but the Biden family was already wealthy – itself an interesting story, although one for another time. And it hardly explains the long series of dubious deals that has swirled around Hunter for years.

Along the way, he found the time to father a child with a stripper, although he denied it until a paternity test provided proof. The infamous laptop – which he apparently put in for repair and then forgot about – included videos of him enjoying himself with a range of women, as well as consuming incredible amounts of drugs and vodka. There is also a tangle of financial records, including a maze of front companies and main-chance characters. He asserts in the book that the laptop was the product of a Russian disinformation campaign, although he has since admitted that it might be his. It is an odd thing to be vague about, given his detailed recollections of his crack days.

Remarkably, the legacy media in the US chose to ignore the laptop saga and Hunter’s many other transgressions, presumably because he says plenty of nasty things about Trump and various other Republicans. They must have been thinking: he might be a corrupt cokehead but he is one of us. So the reviews of the book in places like the New Yorker have been kind to the point of sycophancy. As for the book-buying public, they have stayed away from Beautiful Things in droves, despite a massive PR campaign. Most people know a fraud and a manipulator when they see one.

What does all this say about Joe? Biden senior has maintained that his son has never done anything wrong, has always been a good boy. Really? What does that tell us about Joe’s judgement, in the face of Hunter’s lurid confessions? Joe says he is proud of Hunter for overcoming his addictions but is this the sign of a loving, tolerant father or of a gullible old fool? Perhaps both. Despite Joe’s faith it is hard to see what Hunter has done with his life beyond trading on the “coveted credential” of a famous family name. Would people be so willing to shower him with cash and favours if he was called Hunter Jones? Unlikely, since he has not revealed any talents beyond self-promotion. Certainly, his abilities as a writer are only adequate.

The final chapter of the book takes the form of a letter to the departed Beau. It is rather mawkish, coming across mainly as a plea for sympathy. He seems to believe that he is automatically entitled to forgiveness – indeed, entitled to everything. And that is the dominant note of the book: it is an exercise in narcissism, the kind of selfishness that comes from a childhood and adolescence of being told that you are special, talented and important – despite all evidence to the contrary.

In this sense, Hunter Biden is typical of a certain class of person at a certain point in our times. And an object lesson of how a life can be wasted. At the age of 51, he still has time to do something useful. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

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