Christopher Hitchens is one of those writers about whom most readers have opinions -- those opinions tending toward the extremes, even as they might waver depending whether Hitch was denouncing religion or supporting the Iraq invasion. Known as a cantankerous and well studied pugilist, he was always prepared to attack forcefully on many fronts. In all the public aspects of his life, he was a larger-than kind of figure.
But even if you found his provocations excessively narcissistic or thought he wore his erudition a bit too much on his sleeve, the Hitchens of "Mortality" is worth an open-minded read. Proving he was one of those for whom the prospect of death serves to focus attention, Hitchens narrates his diagnosis of esophageal cancer and his coming to terms with his approaching death with great clarity and insight. He long prided himself on his courage and intellectual honesty, and one of the charms of this book is that when he's tested, he's able to live up to his own ideals. Had he rather converted (as many thought, hoped and prayed he would), in pathetic capitulation to Pascal's wager, wouldn't we have preferred the Hitchens who writes, "the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe"?
But the real strength of the book is not in seeing him vindicated in his self-assurance but in seeing him retain his honest rigor alongside his humility. As Hitchens approaches death, he writes, "It's no fun to appreciate the full truth of the materialistic proposition that I don't have a body, I am a body." This is the kind of claim Hitchens takes pride in making; it's also the kind of claim that stands in unclear relief against his well publicized lifestyle, his epicurean tastes mixing freely with his epicurean airs.
Hitchens may never have believed the mind took precedence over the body, but again and again he describes cancer as "boring" or "banal" and intellectual engagement as responsible for giving life meaning. The contradiction between his materialistic philosophy and idealistic lifestyle is merely apparent. The sacrifice of health was in Hitchens' case a volitional decision and did not come without significant payoff: "knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light."
Even with a foreword and an afterword, "Mortality," compiled from Hitchens' cancer-related Vanity Fair articles, is a wisp of a book. Graydon Carter's foreword hits all the usual notes in Hitchens' celebrity-persona song. The afterword, written by Hitchens' widow, Carol Blue, recounts the period of the diagnosis in intimate detail. While it's somewhat unnerving to read such concision from Hitchens, we read it for the same reason we've always read him: his daring wit and fully human voice, present as ever in death.
Scott F. Parker's books include "Revisited: Notes on Bob Dylan," "Running After Prefontaine" and "Coffee: Grounds for Debate." He lives in Minneapolis.