It's a truth that many of us discover when forced to watch a loved one's long and painful dying: it isn't death that's to be feared, it's dying. Death is our universal fate. Death, as stricken onlookers often come to know, is the deliverance from the terrible sufferings of dying.
There is, on the other hand, nothing universal about dying. We each do it our own way – or, to be more accurate, the way that fate and/or our DNA decree. Not many of us are lucky enough to die suddenly and instantly in our sleep after long, productive and robust lives.
The fate of Christopher Hitchens was far from enviable – stage four metastatic cancer that had begun in his esophagus. As he points out in "Mortality" with characteristically mordant wit, there is no stage five.
He realized something was wrong at almost the exact life moment of one of his greatest triumphs, if not THE greatest – the beginning of a book tour on which he would be widely acclaimed one of the great writers (essayists and journalists) of his time. An imminent "Daily Show" appearance with Jon Stewart beckoned. A live tribute featuring his old friend and fellow member of a mutual admiration society, Salman Rushdie.
Instead, he awoke on an "early morning in June" feeling "as if I were actually shanked to my own corpse. 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 too much or too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning."
He did that "Daily Show." And the gig with Rushdie.
And then he engaged in an enterprise all-but-unique in our lifetimes: he turned his suffering and dying into one of the great literary experiences of the 21st century. He wasn't the first writer to open up his trip to that OTHER country of dying (leave it to Hitchens to breezily call it "tumorville") to the scrutiny of readers. Susan Sontag, immortally, was moved in her own inimitable way, to write "Illness as Metaphor." Hitchens' was, to be sure, a way to die we'd never seen before in the exact same way.
Surely, one of the literary oddities of our time – with its Internet social media routinely doing the work that journalism, mail and word of mouth once did exclusively – was the passionate following that almost instantly materialized for Hitchens' reports from "Tumorville" in Vanity Fair magazine. And, as the TV folk might say, in "all demographics."
Here was something no reader was quite used to – dying in public with all of one's literary virtues not only preserved but sharpened to a fine edge. All of his wit remained, along with his candor and his erudition. The word went out from almost the very first and in all media – "Are you reading Hitchens' reports in Vanity Fair on his chemo for esophageal cancer?"
It's a bit fatuous to compare what Hitchens was doing to a serialized novel by Dickens, but there's no question that some readers devoured Hitchens' installments of that terminal travelogue almost the way readers of a different taste in a different era might have followed the fate of Little Nell.
Christopher Hitchens was the anti-Little Nell – an atheist, a provocateur, a wit, an irresistible storyteller and as formidable and free-thinking a contrarian as one could ever come across. As much as one could deplore his putting that majestic journalistic gift to the service of ideas and sorties endorsed by the neo-cons and W-ettes, you had to respect what Hitchens allowed himself to say, in a way that you'd be unlikely to when it was snarled on the tube by Dick Cheney.
Here, in slightly different form, is that final protracted confrontation by Christopher Hitchens with his own very personal, custom-designed variant of that end which will finally capture us all – captains, kings, aspirants and stragglers.
We were enthralled by Hitchens' ongoing memoir of "living dyingly" and here it is between covers – the darkly hilarious encounter with the maternal woman at a book signing whose conversation began with "a cousin of mine had cancer" and then descended into "I Love Lucy" via Nichols and May; Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture;" his shakedown of Nietzsche's "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger," and his determination to "do" death "in the active, not the passive voice."
His tiny but perhaps indispensable book almost literally dissolves into notes – to "self" no doubt – and an afterword by his widow, Carol Blue. It is the final Hitchens, after the successful memoir "Hitch-22" and the mammoth collection "Arguably."
Its subject is the most common subject of all, a subject literally as common as dirt. Its manner is as unique as its author's extraordinary life and work.?
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.
By Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Books104 pages, $22.99