Cancer may have robbed Christopher Hitchens of much of his hair. But no one could think it had taken any of his legendary knack for getting straight to the point.
"How am I? I am dying," he says as an opener to a conversation with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, recorded at his own home in Washington DC with his "dearest friend" Martin Amis, the novelist, more or less ambling into view midway through it, a bottle of beer in hand. "Everybody is, but the process has suddenly accelerated on me."
And in spite of the position he finds himself in, Hitchens sounds no less intellectually rigorous. To the question that each interviewer was bound to ask an orthodox atheist such as himself – is this the time to reconsider your views on God? – he offers a categorical reply: no.
It has been only a few short weeks since the English-American journalist, author, professional controversialist and curmudgeon was diagnosed with an especially fierce form of cancer. And even those whom Hitchens has infuriated – and they are legion – will surely find it hard not to be moved by his plight today. He is 61 years old, has three young children, whom he had hoped to see married one day. In video interviews recorded in the last several days with CNN and The Atlantic he looks worn out and quite altered.
Hitchens has also used the latest of his regular columns in Vanity Fair to fathom his new and unfamiliar predicament. "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist," he notes. The piece, entitled Topic of Cancer, begins with his relating waking up in a New York hotel one day in June feeling more awful than ever in his life. (And he has, he will admit, had his share of groggy mornings.)
"I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse," he writes. "The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little."
The house-move from wellness into what he calls the "land of malady" was remarkably swift. After summoning emergency doctors to his room and being transported to hospital, it was suggested to him that a visit to an oncologist might be in order. He was soon found to have cancer of the oesophagus. Worse, it had spread to his lymph nodes. Perhaps most discouraging, one tumour was even visible beneath the skin on a collar bone.
Yet this first day of ordeal was marked by Hitchens keeping appointments first to appear at a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and an appearance at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His new book, a memoir called Hitch-22, had just entered the bestsellers lists in America, after all. It was his job to promote it. He continues to write and read. His latest article for the online journal Slate, posted on Tuesday, elegantly tackles quarrels surrounding plans for a mosque near Ground Zero.
It wasn't likely Hitchens would be shy about his new challenge. The collision with mortality provokes thought, and thought is what he purveys. He is called to react also not just to his own situation – his father died of the same cancer very swiftly at the age of 79 – but to how others respond, notably where prayer is involved. He is the author, after all, of a book dedicated to repudiating theories of God, one of several projects, including his drift away from socialism, his support for the Iraq war and his assaults on the late Mother Teresa, which lost him friends.
More people, he reports, are praying for his recovery than for his demise. Others are praying for him to see the light and save himself. He tells Anderson Cooper in the CNN clip that there is one web page that has identified 20 September as "Pray for Hitchens Day". But when prodded by both Cooper and Goldberg on the matter of his perhaps changing his mind on the absence or otherwise of an Almighty, he seizes the opportunity to make clear that no such thing is in the offing. If such a thing were to happen it would be because the illness had rendered him demented.
Indeed, should any of us hear closer to the time – Hitchens says he will be lucky to see another five years – that he has uttered some deathbed words to the effect that he accepting God's existence, we should not believe it. "The faithful love to spread these rumours," he told Cooper, adding that he will not be doing "such a pathetic thing".
Goldberg used his Atlantic blog to answer those who had told him via email that their prayers for Hitchens were not of the well-wishing variety. "I can say that he does not care one way or another what you do or think or pray, but on behalf of myself and the entire team here at The Atlantic let me just say, go fuck yourselves," he replies.
Most of his critics – even those who have had their skin stripped by Hitchens on a public stage – will for now surely hold back. "It would be more Hitchenesque of me to body-slam him while he is down," says Stephen Prothero, a Boston University Professor of Religion who is meant to debate the Ten Commandments with Hitchens in November. "This is, after all, the man who called televangelist Jerry Falwell 'an ugly little charlatan' just hours after his death, adding that 'if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox'. But I don't have it in me."
Hitchens, presumably, would prefer we approach him now as we always have, whether it is to savour or revile him. He would therefore have little objection to the reaction of Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staff writer with Salon magazine, to his recent post-diagnosis appearances. "He remains a big, fat jerk," she said. "And a goddamn genius."