By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 16, 2011
About fifteen years ago a colleague and I had the pleasure of buying Christopher Hitchens a porterhouse steak.
We were in Washington, D.C., at a book launch party at Morton’s in Georgetown. My friend had acquired and edited a jaw dropper of a memoir by a former KGB operative. The event was a bit of a victory lap for him and he graciously lobbied on my behalf to attend. It was a wonderful time when such things were done in the book business.
My friend is a brilliant editor with a classic Irish chip on his shoulder. While his blood brethren are prone to venting their frustrations with their fists, my friend jukes and jabs with words. Talking about anything with him soon devolves into an argument, and I mean that in the best possible way. What he loves most are long-form critical essays—those idiosyncratic demonstrations of wit and erudition that only the most confident and creative can pull off.
If there were a rotisserie league dedicated to gaming them, my friend would be the commissioner.
Armed with some barbs about the Soviet First Directorate, and knowing that Johnny Walker Black would be served gratis, Christopher Hitchens arrived at the reception at Morton’s just as the first ice cubes pinged the bottom of my rocks glass. My friend and I were and still are avid readers of Hitchens—an Oxford-educated, lower-middle-class son of a British Naval officer and a dreamy Liverpool beauty destined for a tragic end. Hitchens flirted with Trotskyism in the 70s and early 80s (what more could you ask?) before succumbing to the allure of blue blood Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s in the 80s and the Vanity Fair lifestyle thereafter. With a mighty hunt and peck typing skill and a hearty constitution, Hitchens is famous for his love of cigarettes and scotch as fuel to file on deadline. But he doesn’t phone it in like the late and great Hunter S. Thompson used to. He’s Orwell with a twist of Capote chased by Hemingway.
In 1996, my friend had him as the number one contender in the same weight class as his reigning heavyweight champion essayist, Gore Vidal. And on my friend’s decades-old scorecard, Vidal had held the title since his TKO of Edmund Wilson. Hitchens’ inclusion was no small thing.
We ditched our professional duties as representatives of our publishing house (we were to mix and mingle indiscriminately) and cornered Hitchens with our best cynical New York book publishing stuff. My friend’s knockout punch was riffing on Colonial American history. I felt rather confident that he would out bon mot a Brit about the U.S., especially when he began with “As John Adams once said to Alexander Hamilton…”
But Hitchens had read everything in the powdered wig canon and artfully dodged my friend’s best roundhouse and came back with something about Tocqueville that silenced us. I thought I was somewhat expert in American labor history. But when Hitchens quoted John L. Lewis’s “Pray for the dead, and fight like Hell for the living” while we discussed one or more of the controversies of the middle 1990s (Monica Lewinsky etc.), I knew not to even get in the ring with him. I just watched and listened.
At the end of the evening, my friend nodded to me as if to say that he’d passed the championship belt to the contender. Dinners like this were why book publishing lured passably literate college grads into accepting subsistence wages. Eight ounces of filet mignon and half a bottle of wine with a guy like Hitchens kept editors like myself in line.
But Hitchens doesn’t write esoteric criticisms that require postgraduate degrees from his reader. Far from it. Anyone with the skill set to write attacks of Mother Theresa (“The Missionary Position”), Henry Kissinger (“The Trial of Henry Kissinger”), God “God is Not Great”) and even Gore Vidal (“Vidal Loco”) and make you laugh while your head shakes in outrage or nods in agreement is as brilliant as he is controversial. The man picks fights. Then he wins over his opponents…or at least offers them a drink.
When you read Hitchens, you wish you could go back in time and pay more attention in school. Better yet, you wish you would have skipped school and read behind him as he autodidactically pillaged from the best libraries in the world. As a friend of mine from Lynn, Massachusetts, would say. . . he’s wicked smaht. And his writing production staggers.
But where I grew up, men like Hitchens weren’t on the radar. To dedicate one’s life to learning, arguing and nudging others with words to reconsider what they’d always took for granted was not the kind of combat encouraged in Western Pennsylvania. Physicality trumped thought. Being a man required “toughness” that was expressed on a football field or in a barroom brawl, not in a byline for the New Statesman. To acquire and express an insatiate intellectual appetite was as foreign to boys like me as the curl pattern or clothesline tackle is to Hitchens.
I thought of this chasm while reading Hitchens’ January ’12 Vanity Fair Column. In it, he lays waste to a staple of innumerable pep talk and motivational speeches from the dyspeptic coaches of my youth. It’s that oldie but goody, the Nietzsche credited chestnut “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
“In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”
Hitchens had stage 4 esophageal cancer and as he reminded us, there is no stage 5. He knew of what he wrote.
He withstood barbaric doses of radiation and chemotherapy. If not for his continued ability to read and write, to learn and to express himself, he as much confessed that he’d prefer going out with a whimper than with the proverbial “exhaust all measures” bang. The crux of the article is that pain and the damage inflicted from his “cures” hadn’t made him any stronger, thank you very much.
He was lobster red, bald, and cadaverously withered. He was dying.
But with his brain mostly intact and his digits capable of tapping away, Hitchens remained heroically vital. He was inimitably Hitchens up until the very end, as manly and defiant as Achilles.
With the gift and beauty of his prose still resonating in my head, I couldn’t help but consider the now incontrovertible truth of the price many men of my generation—and of many generations before and since—paid to achieve their “manhood.” We didn’t do it writing or speaking our truth to power, we did it by hitting each other. For the pride of our towns, our schools and our families. Ironically, in many cases we traded our bodies for an education. Check out Andre Dubus III’s, Townie.
You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine or watch any kind of news program or infotainment segment without the report of yet another multiply concussed former football player, or hockey player, or boxer or any other “collision sport” competitor, taking his own life or operating at an ever diminishing capacity.
One of my heroes as a child, the Pittsburgh Steelers center “Iron” Mike Webster, was the first public face of the phenomenon. He was just 50 years old when he died. (Read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Webster, http://www.gq.com/sports/profiles/200909/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memory-concussions, http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201102/jeanne-marie-laskas-nfl-concussions-fred-mcneill?printable=true, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/06/sports/hockey/derek-boogaard-a-brain-going-bad.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=boogaard&st=cse.)
The after effects of a concussion are well-known—chronic migraine headaches, depression, memory loss, and eventual dementia… And upon death, multiply concussed brains now get a one-way trip to Boston University to determine if they too can be added to the incurable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) roster. You can’t even definitively diagnose CTE in a person without dissecting his/her brain.
What is little reported is the actual experience of serious head trauma. That’s because the concussed don’t remember. It’s a mystical experience, something so “other,” it’s difficult to express without seeming woo-woo. I’ve had more than my share of concussions and the best way I can describe the big ones is that they rob you of reality—the passage of time. You leave the world and you don’t know where you’ve gone or for how long. Imagine walking to work one day and then suddenly being in a restaurant with other patrons asking you if you are okay. How did you get from the sidewalk to the restaurant? You’ll never know.
But that case is the super duper concussion variety. There are plenty of other variations of head trauma. They are often labeled as “having your bell wrung,” or as “stingers.” These are the ones that coaches believe separate “the men from the boys.” And when you’re a boy, becoming a man is a destination not a journey. You take the shortest path. You think what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens explains otherwise.
My father used to joke that I hit so hard (I was a linebacker) that every time he saw me tackle someone he made a note to subtract ten points from my SAT scores. I’d laugh because I knew he went through the very same thing when he was my age. He never finished college, but his children did.
I now tell my children that I played football so they wouldn’t have to.
The more Hitchens-like writers and thinkers and the less CTE sufferers we add to society, the better.