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For Christopher Hitchens
Posted on Dec 17, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Another version of this piece ran in the LA Weekly in 2007.
He appeared equally capable of pissing into your grandmother’s fish tank as beating you at chess; the Angus Young of quasi-omniscient political journo-intellectualism, looking as if he had been assembled hastily by sausage makers hoping to fill a suit with all the succulent impropriety of vitriolic meats made sane by delectability. Well aware that the shortest distance between birth and death is a very straight line, his reputation was that of a man prone to the rich experiences offered by staggering. And, contrary to the caricature so lavishly and lovingly rendered by friends and foes alike that painted him as either a reliable guard or attack dog, one with a ferocious mouth that showed no mercy, Christopher Hitchens was not a wild animal, much to both my relief and dismay.
It was like meeting a clown outside of his makeup, away from the hysteria of his profession, who appears lovely and handsome and noble, if only because he isn’t trapped in a spotlight at the center of a ludicrous pie fight.
In fact, having recently won the 2007 National Magazine Award for “Columns and Commentary” for his outstanding work for Vanity Fair, not to mention the surprising popularity of his then-new book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which reached No. 4 on Amazon’s best-seller list even before its official release date, there was something both cheerful and elegant and, dare I say, sober about Hitchens when I met him at dusk sitting alone on a squat sofa in the posh outside reception area of his Beverly Hills hotel. In his rumpled trademark suit the color of Caucasian neutrality, a camouflage for anything but, he had just arrived in town to do the 2007 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which I would see him do 16 hours after interviewing him and, much to the shock of everybody in attendance and in sharp contradiction to the outstanding premise of his book of there being no deistic magic in the universe, he performed the jaw-dropping miracle of receiving more applause and admiration than anybody else on his panel, the equivalent of walking on whiskey at a venue that typically booed him. One felt that the air he drew through his ever-present Rothmans Blue cigarette while he walked from the crowded ballroom to the signing area afterward was the lightest it had been in quite a long while. It was amazing. Christopher Hitchens, crucified more times by old friends and new enemies than all the velvetized Jesuses in Tijuana combined, had been born again.
“M. Poisson,” he said when we first met, in response to my gregarious hello, using the French version of the name that I attach to the bottom of my cartoons.
“Sir Hitchens,” I said, resisting the temptation to make a joke to myself about what rose-colored version of doomsday he must have been seeing through the rose-colored retinas I was all too happy to notice, his roguish reputation gleefully revealed to be picture perfect.
He stood, we shook hands. “Do you want to get a drink from the bar before you sit down?” he asked, making me feel like the guest and him the host in my own hometown.
“Sure,” I said, looking at the coffee table separating us both and seeing a pack of cigarettes, a cup of espresso and a wine glass the size of an inverted bell jar containing just enough red wine—a dead Jesus, we used to call it—to tease a postage stamp.
“Do get the Coppola,” he insisted, a name that I was unable to recall 90 seconds later while standing at the hotel bar, having not made the connection to the famous film director’s winery. Had the connection been made, it would have most certainly turned me off, as I had lost my taste for any celebrity-named foodstuff in the summer of ’75 when I ate enough Bobby Clarke Peanut Butter to caulk a chimney. Instead, I asked the bartender for a glass of cabernet that had a name I’d have a hard time spelling, that didn’t sound too much like an Italian sports car or a brand of designer jeans or something that a moneyed Napa Valley hippie might find delightfully sardonic—no Barefoot wine, nor Mad Housewife. His choice cost me 18 bucks, whatever the fuck it was.
“Did you get the Coppola?” Hitchens wanted to know when I returned.
“Yes,” I said, setting my gigantic glass of whatthefuck down and turning on my tape recorder.
MR. FISH: Let’s talk about the title of your new book first, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” There’s nothing obtuse about it, is there? In fact, I can’t imagine anybody buying the book and then being offended because they didn’t know what they were getting.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No, which is the point. A lot of people have been waiting for something like this for a long time, this push back to religious bullying and stupidity. The title came to me in the shower, which is where most of my ideas come to me. That’s why I’m so clean.
Do you care that such a blatant title might limit its readership to mostly those who need no convincing of your argument? Is it really going to change anybody’s mind?
I do think it will change minds, precisely that.
Why do you think so?
Because I think there are a lot of minds that are not so much in a solid form of dogma. The book isn’t just about saying to hell with you and your foolish faith. I think it’s probably useful to have at least some knowledge of the other side, empathy even.
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