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Hunter Biden wanted to be an artist, perhaps a writer or a musician. His older brother, Beau, encouraged him to become a singer-songwriter. And yet, impelled by a striving ambition born of the desire to emulate his more conventional older sibling (and to heed the advice of the well-heeled elites who surrounded the Biden family from early childhood), Hunter chose a different path. He strives earnestly, but he is beset by failure and addiction.
By his own confession, Hunter Biden is a liar, a cheat and a sneak. The embattled youngest son of President Joe Biden — and the author of a hasty but not uncharming new memoir, Beautiful Things—is willing to deceive his loved ones and business partners while stretching his moral and financial credit to their limits.
Hunter is also almost entirely without guile. When he reapplies to Yale Law School after initially being rejected, he is convinced it was a poem he submitted with his application that ultimately sealed his acceptance. “Yale’s acceptance letter noted that my success and dedication … more than qualified me,” he writes, “but that my poem was unlike anything they’d ever received.” The idea that an admissions officer would reward a politically prominent admittee after he studied for a year at a slightly less august institution — in this case, Georgetown — simply never occurs to him. Ah yes, young man. Your poem. Quite unlike anything ever seen.
This premise — that Hunter is a liar but an honest one — makes Beautiful Things a fascinating glimpse into the life of America’s middling political aristocracy and, perhaps, a funhouse mirror reflection of his father’s own place in our crooked meritocracy. The book is an ungainly amalgam: part macho addiction memoir, part soppy tale of sibling grief, part new-age romance. Through it all, Hunter fails ever upward, convinced he has succeeded solely on his own merits. Hunter is not the first American scion to believe this, of course, but few have imbibed the ersatz, shirt-sleeve, blue-collar political identity his old man has used to such effect over the past half-century in Washington. Just as Joe Biden once infamously declared, “I’m not the senator from MBNA” — a Delaware-based bank that was once one of the largest credit card issuers in the United States, before it was swallowed up by Bank of America in a $35 billion acquisition — Hunter acknowledges his good fortune but earnestly (and incredulously) believes he is a self-made man.
MBNA appears only briefly in Beautiful Things, just after Hunter’s stint at Yale Law. A new husband and father who is already drinking heavily, Hunter participates in the bank’s “executive management training program” while working for his father’s re-election campaign. Hunter is forever “getting a job,” finding an opportunity, landing a client. He owns that his family name has probably opened doors for him, but he genuinely seems to think he’s a man of charm, talent, ability and, yes, poetry. He does not mention the $100,000 retainer that MBNA reportedly gave him while his father was coincidentally hard at work on the bankruptcy bill.
Hunter then embarks on a series of jobs that only the misfit son of a U.S. senator might hold. He accepts a gig at the Department of Commerce. He founds some kind of consultancy-cum-private equity firm called Rosemont Seneca Partners with Devon Archer (a “super-motivated former college lacrosse player” who would later be convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy) and Chris Heinz (the son of the philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry and the late Sen. John Heinz, the stepson of Sen. John Kerry and one of the heirs to Pittsburgh’s Heinz family fortune). Along the way, Hunter goes to a celebrity residential rehab program in Antigua, although he is at pains to emphasize he had a roommate and made his own bed.
Hunter’s father becomes vice president. Hunter relapses. He goes back to rehab. His first marriage falls apart. He joins non-profit boards. His beloved — and, perhaps, more favored — brother Beau dies, and Hunter descends into non-functional alcoholism and crack addiction.
These events and people have a jumbled and absurd quality; without consulting external sources, the precise timeline of events is hard to understand. Whether or not Hunter had a collaborator or ghostwriter, a certain literary and even cinematic pretense suffuses Beautiful Things: it moves forward and backward in time and space like an earnest but unsuccessful imitation of a Tarantino screenplay. (Hunter makes an explicit reference to the filmmaker late in the book when he’s camped out at the Petit Ermitage hotel in Los Angeles with a gaggle of hangers-on including a dealer named Curtis and a misfit former surfer and car thief fittingly named Honda.)
The book even toys with something resembling magical realism. At one point, driving on high mountain roads in the middle of the night, cracked out and possibly hallucinating after an extraordinary drug binge, Hunter writes “an enormous barn owl suddenly swooped over my windshield, as if dropped straight from the inky night sky.” This spirit guide flies just ahead of him through the night and finally leads him “straight into Prescott [Arizona]” and another stint in rehab. Through it all, Hunter is somehow always making money. He can “put work on pause” but still pay the bills “with the legacy pieces of contracts I still had.” He can “rejoin the world by consulting five or six major clients.”
After emerging from rehab again, Hunter is invited to join the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm. It’s a curious appointment that President Donald Trump and his allies would eventually try, with limited success, to turn into a campaign-sinking scandal for President Joe Biden. Why was Hunter on that board? Well, to offer advice on good corporate governance and help the firm gain clients and investors in the West. At least, that’s the story Mykola Zlochevsky, Burisma’s owner and president, tells Hunter, and the one Hunter chooses to believe.
Hunter flies to Monte Carlo for a Burisma board meeting, presciently predicts Brexit to a gaggle of skeptical European cosmopolitans and goes to a nightclub. “Monte Carlo provides a temptation for any taste,” Hunter observes. “When I went to the restroom, someone offered me cocaine. I took it.”
What are we to make of this sometimes harrowing, sometimes picaresque tale of a man backing his way into wealth, albeit the kind that is only modestly absurd in an era of oligarchic billionaires? Hunter Biden is no billionaire; he is simply one of the many sons and daughters of wealth and power bumbling along in the United States, making do with merely millions or tens of millions of dollars. He’s a glorious dummy who is too beloved by his powerful family either to fail or to find a genuine opportunity to succeed on his own. In an older sort of feudal order, he’d have been trained for the clergy or sent off to an army. In today’s neofeudal order, he will simply sit on boards and provide vague advice to “clients,” forever convinced he’s really being paid for what he has to say.
The great stories of American graft and corruption tend to examine either the top or the bottom of the pyramid, either to the Madoffs who concoct the Ponzi schemes or the many tiny victims they ultimately grind up. Guys like Hunter occupy the layer below the bigger, richer scammers on top — the folks who sell just enough Amway, just enough Mary Kay, just enough subscriptions to keep themselves in scotch, gold watches and Cadillacs. It is usually the friends of their fathers, or their own clients, who are buying.
Joe Biden remains largely off-stage, although Hunter goes to great lengths to defend his father against allegations that he plagiarized speeches by former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, and that he was far too cozy with segregationist senators like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. The Bidens père and fils, sentimental, undisciplined and absurdly lucky, are perhaps not as different as they might appear. Joe simply enjoyed better mentors, lifelong sobriety and the glow of the unique political talent of President Barack Obama; that he’s currently residing in the White House is the result of a once-in-a-century pandemic as much as anything else.
At the conclusion of Beautiful Things, Hunter is saved for the umpteenth time from his own worst impulses, this time by a South African woman named Melissa, whose piercing blue eyes remind Hunter of his late brother’s and his late brother’s wife’s. (Hunter somewhat scandalously saw his sister-in-law, Hallie Biden, for a time after Beau’s death.) Hunter and Melissa get married in a shotgun wedding and Hunter begins to paint again, although it is unclear that he has ever painted before. Does it matter?
Freud writes that one “feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation.’ ” For those to the manner born in the United States today, one wonders whether a man should be anything but.
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Jacob Bacharach is a novelist and critic. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. and Blacksburg, Va.