I haven’t seen a bad review of Hitchens’s last book, Mortality, about his struggle with cancer. It collects his Vanity Fair pieces on Tumorville and has a foreword by his editor Graydon Carter and an afterword by his wife Carol Blue. There’s another positive review by Lorenzo Milam at reason.com that includes this statement, which makes you think differently about the cliché that someone died after “battling with cancer”:
Did those 18 months turn Hitchens into some kind of a hero? “I love the imagery of struggle,” he tells us. But “when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into you system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” In less than 100 words, he not only is able to defuse the fake heroic image (“battling cancer”) but manages to leave us with a delicate and elegant irony: “kindly people” delivering “a huge transparent bag of poison…a venom sack.”
I’ve been dipping into Hitchens’s last essay collection, Arguably, and it’s just what I expected: a wonderful group of provocative and beautifully written pieces. The man was a journalistic genius: he had an entire library in his head and could summon up just the right literary allusion at the right time—without seeming pompous. I simply have no idea how he retained all that stuff, and could still spew it out at a breakneck pace, even while drunk or hung over. There’s nobody alive that can do what he did.
I’ve not seen Mortality, but you should read Arguably. One of my favorite pieces is available free on Slate: “Wine drinkers of the world, unite.” It’s his criticism of the barbaric custom of wine stewards pouring out the wine for you at table instead of letting you do it yourself. I agree with him 100%: the host should pour the wine, and tailor it to the tablemates’ consumption. Ad lib wine pouring by sommeliers or waiters is designed to do only one thing: help the reastaurant sell more wine. I regularly ask, when one of these tries to pour for me, to allow me to do the deed.
But of course Hitchens’s take on the subject is far, far funnier and engaging than mine; go have a look, and never allow anyone to pour for you in a restaurant.