Most of the audience filed quietly out of Royce Auditorium as two small packs of Amis and Hitchens fans swarmed the apron of the stage, where both authors, positioned at opposite sides, genially engaged in an impromptu book signing. Hitchens’ people made up the slightly larger group. They clustered around their author, who was down on one knee addressing their uniformly upturned faces. Martin Amis, aided by Mona Simpson—who was simultaneously dealing with her own fans and auditorium staff wanting to clear the stage—efficiently signed a steady stream of books placed before him at his podium. As I turned to leave with my signed books in hand, I noticed Warren Beatty, his eyes on Amis, ambling slowly toward the stage.
The after-party was held on the terrace of an upscale hotel in Westwood, and it was a flawless Southern California night in spring. When I arrived, it was already crowded, but I could see Martin Amis standing with a small group near the center of the terrace. Christopher Hitchens huddled off to one side with his group, which was—again—slightly larger. Tilda Swinton, Michael York, Annette Benning along with husband Warren, endowed the party with a cachet of the sort that once was associated with a novel’s adaptation to the “Big Screen.”
The mood was definitely up and it was fun being there. I spotted a few friends in a group that was hovering around a buffet of intricately assembled hors d’oeuvres and worked my way over to them. We talked about this and that—about how well the party had turned out, about the pleasures of drinking good wine under the night sky, and naturally we traded impressions about the writers’ conversation earlier that evening. A professor of modern American literature commented that neither author seemed to understand the role of religion in America, and a poet thought Hitchens’ comparison of biblical imagery—specifically the burning bush—with Stephen Hawking’s imagery to be pointless. Hitchens had been talking about the collective move toward an empirically based understanding of how the universe works and wanted to make the point that Hawking’s imagery was superior to religious imagery.
In the days that followed, however, feelings of frustration surfaced. I traded emails and phone calls with friends who had been there. One labeled Hitchens “The Original Bloviator” and wondered why Amis had not spoken up more. She thinks that Hitchens left England because no one would invite him round for the weekend any longer. Convinced that this is Hitchens’ standard stage performance, she’s mystified as to why American offers for speaking engagements continue. A friend who has managed a reading group for 25 years wrote in an email, “… Hitchens hogged the discussion and used the last few minutes to force his political views on all of us and I strongly object to this.” Not surprisingly, many people—regardless of religious orientation—found Hitchens’ shtick on Mother Theresa to be base and insulting. His too-clever tag lines, such as “missionary position,” became simply throwaway lines when tossed off mid-rant.