SOMETIMES even when you know something's coming, it knocks the wind out of you when it arrives. That's the way I felt this morning when I opened the paper and saw that Hitchens had succumbed to cancer that virtually every reader knew he had. (Here is the New York Times obit.)
I've spent the last few mornings reading an essay or two in his latest collection, Arguably. I don't always, or even often, agree with Hitchens, and on some political matters, such as the Iraq War, I tend to disagree rather strenuously. But I can't think of a livelier or wider ranging writer: The essays on turmoil in the Middle East, rebel John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Orwell's Animal Farm, or conservative hero Edmund Burke could only have come from Hitch.
I'd long enjoyed Hitchens' writing, but thought of him as a kind of witty, debate-club contrarian until I met him in 2004, during an article I was writing about his friend Martin Amis. Hitchens and I had a drink -- it was about noon, so mine was lemonade, his a double (or was it a quadruple?) Johnny Walker. Hitch was funny and engaging as we spoke about shared interests -- the life and work of Salman Rushdie, George Orwell -- and entirely sincere on the matter of the Iraq War. (Which ended, sort of, the same week he died.) I was not convinced of this war launched by an incompetent boy king, but I was entirely persuaded that Hitchens had his reasons, and they were not merely for show.
(Here is a smart piece for Salon about the told-you-so by religious zealots after the death of the atheist writer.)
Since then, out mutual friend and literary agent Steve Wasserman, who was at his bedside last night, has kept me apprised on Hitch's condition; I felt like I knew him even though he would not likely have recognized my name. I'll wager that Hitchens, because he wrote so personally and so forcefully, had that effect on a lot of people. We won't see his like again.
UPDATE: Here is a fascinating Katha Pollitt obit that does not let him off the hook for his political switch, his bullying or his self-destructive drinking.