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“Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens

By Justin Moyer,

MEMOIR MORTALITY By Christopher Hitchens Twelve. 104 pp. $22.99

In June 2010, hard-drinking, hard-smoking professional atheist Christopher Hitchens was, ironically, a journalistic deity. His 2007 book, “God Is Not Great,” had stirred up believers and non-believers, and he’d debated priests and rabbis on the road. His just-released memoir, “Hitch-22,” was about to be a bestseller. Then, right before a reading and an appearance on “The Daily Show,” the unexpected happened: He started to die.

“I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show,” he writes in “Mortality,” a slim cancer memoir billed as his last original book-length work, though much of it appeared first in Vanity Fair. “This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.”

A fair amount of “Mortality” is unnecessary. After Hitchens’s death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, what could further bolster his reputation? A foreword by Graydon Carter, his longtime editor at Vanity Fair, and an afterword by Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow, don’t offer much insight, and prose fragments at the book’s conclusion — many incorporated in other essays by him — could have been left out.

Still, there’s something satisfying, even elegant, about this short book. Who wants to surf VanityFair.com and dig up the relevant URLs to reconstruct Hitchens’s last oeuvre? At a funeral, you keep the program even if you’ve already read the obituary. “Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens writes. In his final book, with humor and humility, he resists this last temptation.

— Justin Moyer

moyerj@washpost.com

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