Algren's dubious libations
I'm finally cracking open Nelson Algren's 1963 collection Who Lost An American?, which I picked up a few years ago in a first edition. In the leadoff piece, "New York: Rapietta Greensponge, Girl Counselor, Comes to My Aid", he includes a description of his preparations for a party he is hosting for New York literary society, on the eve of his departure on an overseas voyage.
If all that was needed for a successful Bon Voyage party was one clever move, I'd already made it by buying a gallon of sauterne for $2.98, putting under the soda recharger until it fizzed, and then pouring it into bottles labeled "Mumm's." Because if there was one thing I wanted my New York friends to have, it was the aura of success. I didn't wish them success itself - in fact, I longed passionately for the total ruin of them one by one - but I did want to arrange some sort of aura for them.
"How does a hack like that manage to serve champagne at all hours?" my New York friends often marvel. My Chicago friends don't bother with that. They just say, "Where'd you get that cheap wine?" and toss the remains of their drink in the sink. So much for bobsledding at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
My next move was to snip whiskey ads of Scotsmen playing bagpipes and glue them onto old root-beer bottles, into which I poured the contents of a curious brew distilled on Amsterdam Avenue to which nobody has yet given a name, probably because it has to be got down without fooling around or it won't go down at all. Labeling these "The Best Scotch Procurable" would, I hoped, raise the fascinating issue of where one might purchase the best scotch that is unprocurable; thus providing even inarticulate guests with a topic of conversation.
Actually, although this piece is ostensibly nonfiction, I'm not sure how to accurately characterize it; though it includes caricatures of actual people (particularly Norman Mailer and James Baldwin) it is clearly fiction invented by Algren. Or I hope it's invented, at least for the sake of Mailer and Baldwin, whom Algren skewers relentlessly (and hilariously) here.