I've been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, even all through his contrarian views on Iraq, ever since the positively Damascene moment in a friend's sunny apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour on Easter Saturday 1994, where I read him for the first time. The moment of revelation was specifically this paragraph from a review in the TLS, first published 1988, which gave me a major new view, as of suddenly opened curtains on a window that turns out to be much larger than one imagined, of what it was possible for a writer to do:
If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes across the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. The post-Kennedy period is often written up as a 'loss of innocence', a judgement which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought America had been until a quarter of a century ago. ... With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where information technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicised; where the bias is always in favour of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza.And now here he is in the current Vanity Fair, almost another quarter of a century later, on what it's like to be diagnosed with cancer at 61.
Check out, in particular, the final paragraph, where one of the world's most famously strident and adamantine atheists and actively anti-Christian crusaders observes, briefly and neutrally, knowing that the irony does not need to be pointed out and will not escape his readers (one of the reasons I love him is his unfailing respect for his readers' intelligence), that he is getting supportive messages from 'an astonishing number of prayer groups'.
Imagine the struggle to process and reconcile this -- to do so at all, much less weakened, as he clearly is and including intellectually (though there's not much evidence of that in the writing) by the brutal treatments that all past and present cancer patients know far too much about.