In 1988, Joe Biden began his dogged quest for the presidency with the first of three campaigns to become his party’s nominee and in the same year his teenage son Hunter set off on an erratic career of his own. Over the ensuing decades, as Joe’s presidential prospects rose and fell, Hunter unstoppably reeled from schoolboy rowdiness to drunken adolescence and then from divorce to drug addiction, before ending in bacchanalian revels at sleazy motels in the company of pimps and sex workers. Along the way, surprisingly, he also found time for an interlude of richly remunerated nepotism on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Here are two different approaches to the pursuit of American happiness: the father inched slowly towards a remote goal, while the son demanded instant gratification, spent money recklessly and went on a supposedly liberating downhill race to ruin. “I kept climbing the escalator,” Hunter complains when remembering his early success as a corporate lawyer, “and didn’t know how to get off.” Binge-boozing and crack cocaine were his blissful release from promotion. Now that Joe Biden finally has the job he always coveted, his most urgent task is to restore the moral health of a sick society; Hunter heads the queue of those needing rehabilitation.
Hunter’s problem is the guilt that illogically afflicts the survivors of disaster. In 1972, he emerged intact from a car crash that killed his mother and infant sister and left his adored older brother, Beau, with numerous injuries. Then in 2015, mortified by his own helplessness, he watched as Beau, the family’s dynastic hope, seen as a future senator or president, died from an agonising brain cancer. After the funeral, Hunter began an affair with Beau’s widow, Hallie, which redefined adultery as an exercise in commiseration; when this ill-advised liaison fell apart, he lunged into four years of what he correctly labels “depravity”.
Thinking perhaps of JFK in the Dallas motorcade, Hunter says that the deaths of his mother and brother were a “public tragedy”. It’s an oddly ostentatious way of looking at the family’s terrible losses; by contrast, Hunter’s own tragedy is private, though he has chosen to flagrantly publicise it. Self-obsessed without being self-aware, he says that he was “terrorised” by alcohol, as if he deserves sympathy because al-Qaida had targeted him. Elsewhere, far from playing the victim, he brags that his intake of vodka and crack was “astounding – even death-defying” and he has the cheek to claim that he accepted $80,000 a month from Burisma because the money allowed him to spend extra time caring for the stricken Beau.
Anonymously shacked up with a loopy female drug dealer during his father’s vice-presidency, Hunter describes his self-ostracism as a form of suicide. On a bender in LA in 2018, he consorts with Samoan gangsters, prowls through fetid encampments of tents on the downtown streets and feels he is surrendering to a death wish. Still, despite his best efforts, he did not manage to destroy himself and degradation hardly dented his innate sense of privilege. As he cruises around Nashville before dawn in his Porsche in search of drugs, he smirks that the homeless loiterers in alleys take him for an off-duty cop. He is startled by the penitential domestic regime at a clinic in Antigua where he undergoes one of many ineffectual cures: “Everybody makes his own bed, does his own laundry,” he reports. Dude, so do I, and I’m not being detoxed.
Hunter’s writing can be mawkish, especially when he is differentiating between “Mommy” (his dead mother), “Mom” (his stepmother, Joe’s second wife) and “Mom-Mom” (his granny). The book’s title refers to the “beautiful things” he and Beau aspired to do when they got round to “making the world a better place”, but Hunter’s narrative is mostly grim and squalid. “There was no fucking poetry to it at all,” he remarks after a nervy transaction in the slums. At another point, he buys recycled urine so he can cheat on a drug test. Nevertheless, episodes of delirious lyricism do occur. Driving while doped, Hunter is guided along a perilous mountain road in Arizona by a phantasmal barn owl, while he transforms the Hollywood hills into a gothic wilderness, a suburb of hell where coyotes howl and nocturnal birds screech maledictions.
Because the Bidens are devout Catholics, Hunter’s book is a confession and an act of contrition. His father, who currently wields the pardon power that Trump so immorally abused, cannot offer absolution, but instead he dispenses the nostrum of empathy, much prized in America after four years of Trump’s callous rancour. Yet the religious reassurance falters: drink and drugs give Hunter a more immediate access to paradise. Early on, he recites a Hail Mary in the hope that Beau’s cancer will miraculously disappear, then scoffs at this “makeshift altar to the mystical”. Later, wafting woozily aloft, he rebuilds the altar. Crack smokers, he says, have a “sacramental routine”, with pipes and scouring pads to replace the chalices and consecrated saucers used in the mass; the high derived from the initial puff is “a ‘bell ringer’ – crack’s holy grail”.
Hunter has recently been redeemed by the love of his new wife, Melissa, who put a stop to those profane ecstasies. Intriguingly, she first captivated him when he noticed that she had the same blue eyes as Beau. He doesn’t say whether Melissa measured up in other respects – his brother, he insists, had “the longest eyelashes” and “great hair” – but he married her anyway, a week after they met. Announcing his salvation, Hunter also grandly agrees to accept “the existential obligations of being a great man’s son”. Well, that’s a relief. Now all that Joe has to do is save America.