By all means, let us speak ill of the dead. Christopher Hitchens would have it no other way. He wore out soles from dancing on graves. Among the famously departed he dissed were Princess Diana (“a simpering Bambi narcissist”), Mother Teresa (“a thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”), and Ronald Reagan (“an obvious phony and loon”). In fact, in the posthumous account of his ultimately hopeless struggle with esophageal cancer, he regrets that “elderly villains” like Henry Kissinger and Pope Benedict XVI will be spared his scathing obits for them.
This past December, it was Hitchens’ turn to have others take stock of his life and career. If they thought they would get the final word, however, they were wrong. Mortality is physically slim but, as its title proclaims, the subject matter could not be weightier. Most of the text first appeared in Vanity Fair. Shortly after he was diagnosed, in June 2010, Hitchens began reporting on his ordeal. He didn’t finish but not for lack of trying; his widow informs us in the afterword that he was at it to the end, using his food tray as a desk.
The book opens on the day his cancer introduced itself to him. He is in New York to pitch his memoir, Hitch-22. When he awakes that morning he can barely breathe; his chest feels like it has been “hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.” EMTs are promptly summoned. Several hours later he is released from the hospital, “a sad border post,” he calls it, between “the country of the well” and “the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” An accomplished compartmentalizer, he keeps his evening commitments to The Daily Show and the 92nd Street Y.
It’s all downhill from there. His treatment regimen produces gruesome side effects. For all his drinking and smoking, Hitchens always prided himself in looking younger than his age. Within months, however, he is shriveled and hairless, a post-apocalyptic mutant. And yet he maintains his unique personality. He is candid and, at times, funny about the indignities he endures: chronic nausea, radiation rash, staph pneumonia, painful swallowing, incessant expectoration (“pints of old saliva, occasionally mucus”). His sex drive gets stuck in park: “If Penelope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice.” Due to the deteriorated condition of his veins, a once-simple act like giving blood turns into a Hammer horror film.
Throughout, he resists the temptation to fall into self-pity. He acknowledges his legendary excesses were probably responsible for the foreshortening of his enviable run. “In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light . . . I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction.”
His lack of sentimentality is also welcome. He chafes at “The Last Lecture,” a popular inspirational address by the late Professor Randy Pausch: “Pausch used to work for Disney and it shows . . . [he] taught at Carnegie Mellon, but it’s the Dale Carnegie note that he likes to strike.” And thankfully, he undermines the awful Nietzschean cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” a useless and erroneous piece of consolation too often thrown to the gullibly desperate.
Predictably, religion comes under withering rhetorical scrutiny by the bestselling author of god is not great. He gets exercised over Christian “maniacs” who oppose stem cell research; nevertheless, for years he supported George W. Bush, the born-again president who refused to permit federal funding of such research, slowing down its progress considerably. One wonders what life-prolonging procedure Hitchens might have benefited from if his hero had ordered full speed ahead. As for the chance of a last-minute conversion: “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
On the debit side of Hitchens’ ledger can be found the following: boor, bully, chickenhawk, hypocrite, misogynist, name-dropper, narcissist, sellout, snob, stool pigeon. He hit bottom with his unhinged and intellectually dishonest defense of the Iraq war. But if you’re going to read him, you have to take the good with the bad. Mortality, his stiff-upper-lipped adieu, offers more of the former than the latter.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.