As I bolted from the lumbering 1 train over to Broadway, nothing could have prepared me for pinot grigio and spiced almonds and cashews as good as what was laid out at Wednesday evening’s event at the Strand’s third floor reading room, set to commemorate the Paris Review’s inaugural Salon event at that venue. These brimming glass bowls and tinkered plastic cups were straight out of Eden: in my rushed panic to arrive on time, this sustenance tasted not merely like the best food, but like humanity’s first food: raw, pure, full of vigor.
This night marked a second momentous occasion, the grub notwithstanding: this was to be the first day in which The Paris Review was sold at the Strand, beginning with this month’s issue, #201. Review Editor Lorin Stein joked onstage that he’d heard legends of Strand president Fred Bass personally denying George Plimpton patronage way back when: a literate jab swinging of juggernauts that befuddled certain crowd members to the point of feeling faint. It would not be a salon if someone were not eventually in need of smelling salts.
The legendary Wallace Shawn admirably mounted Denis Johnson’s short “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” first published in the Review and later chronicled in Johnson’s beloved episodic novel Jesus’ Son. He captures Johnson’s earnestness of sorts, an ideal lead for Johnson’s false prophet. I say this knowing that Billy Crudup played the role in the movie. Shawn’s voice has gravelled some in graying years: no longer at that pinched pitch of The Princess Bride and Clueless – at least not exclusively. Perhaps he always had such grit in him, and it is only brimming to the top with material as rich as Johnson’s (to take nothing away from the superb craft of Amy Heckerling). While some – Stein included – remarked on the grimly dark humor of the story, I was taken with the levity Shawn brought to a story of surreal tragedy. Perhaps it’s that I still equate the sound of Shawn’s voice with boyhood sleepovers and camaraderie with Andre the Giant (I came around to his essays and plays later in life), but he spoke as someone who knew what it was to walk on water, or at least be pretty sure you’re capable.
The debut of a book bag designed by a Review reader to commemorate the new Strand-PR union was unveiled to the oohs and awes of all. For act three, Amy Warren of stage and screen (namely Boardwalk Empire and August: Osage County) was up to the challenge of orating Dorothy Parker’s 1957 “The Art of Fiction” interview alongside the Review’s deputy editor Sadie Stein. Warren had the sardonic gravitas of Parker down to a science, trading barbs like they were relief pitchers’ rookie cards.
Quick: let’s Google “salons.” Pareene stronghold Salon.com notwithstanding, we learn that these were thrown by patrons of the arts, leaders of fashion. Prior to the end of the 17th century they were held in bedrooms, while the lady of the house laid on the bed holding court. Then there’s the notorious “Salon” annual exhibition of Paris’ Academie des Beaux-Arts, the top art show of the 18th/19th century’s western world, and subsequent Salon des Refuses of 1863, an annex of rejected, publicly mocked works that included Manet’s “Luncheon in the Grass,” Whistler’s “The White Girl,” and proletariat “outsider” art from folky sister bands and macaroni painters.
But who needs any of that when you have good cashews?