There were two thrunderclaps in my corner of the world yesterday. The first was from a surprise storm that hit Pasadena in the afternoon. It shook our KPCC broadcast center. It might have been a sign of something, as later that night, my Twitter feed lit up with the terrible news, not unexpected but gut-punching nonetheless: Christopher Hitchens had lost his battle with esophegeal cancer, at 62.
Hitchens would be appalled by my lede, the suggestion that the thunder meant that a higher power who makes himself known through weather was somehow expressing — What? Rage? Triumph? Agony? that a worthy foe was shedding this mortal coil. Hitchens had spent his dying days arguing with all comers that his thesis from his bestselling book "God Is Not Great" was going to go with him, unaltered, to his grave.
That was Hitchens, though. More than perhaps any other contemporary journalist, he lived his life through argument. In fact, he seemed incapable of processing existence through anything other than withering debate.
This implied a certain unrepentant lifestyle. The smoking. The drinking. The neverending arm-wrestling with the powerful and the corrupt, but also the feuds with friends and former fellow travelers. Then more smoking. And drinking. A quick trip to a war zone. Also some adventures of the flesh. No one has ever more wistfully and louchely characterized a former girlfriend than Hitchens did when asked to recall his time with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, before she was Anna Wintour, when she was just Anna from London. He commented very, very infrequently about his wife (his second), Carol Blue.
Along with Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic for Time magazine who also rarely holds back (but who dodged death), Hitchens was something of a inspiration to me as a young journalist. He had two great talents: He could decimate in argument, but also delight in the range of his literary erudition.
It was literature that was really his Virgil. The guys who excelled at it were his mates. I never met Hitchens, but I saw him in action several times, once with his friends the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in New York. Amis was a puckish, slightly smug esthete; McEwan the kind of man you might meet on a hike in the mountains, and one who seemed to have a dark story to tell, just like the characters in his books.
Hitchens was the woolly emcee, a kind of admiring beast. It's been said that Hitchens somehow languished in the shadow of his more famous friends, but you couldn't tell that night. He took to the limelight, firing up a smoke and taking questions from the audience. Amis could perform Amis, the punk progeny who had outpaced the fame of his celebrated dad, Kingsley. McEwan could enjoy the fact that Hollywood loved his stuff better than his friends'.
But give Hitchens a podium and he became, however briefly, the main event, even if he wasn't the headliner.
This kind of life demands stamina: to be ready to go when the camera switches on, no matter what, and to always have something clever to say. Hitchens had it right to the end. Drunk or diseased, egotistical or erudite, he almost always delivered. He insisted over and over that thinking was moral combat, a fight for the undeniable human good.
He didn't make it as far as he should have, joining his hero George Orwell in a relatively premature demise. But we paid attention the whole time. And there's a thunderous triumph in that. What you can say about him now that's he's gone is that Christopher Hitchens prepared us better than anyone else to live in a world without Christopher Hitchens.