In the 2016 movie Genius, the writer Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) is asked to describe his new book. He responds all-too-seriously, “It’s about America—all of it.” My wife and I quote that line to death. Not only because it’s hilarious but also because some of the best books we read these days shed light on some hidden truth about America. Which is a feeling I get whenever I read one of Karen Abbott’s sumptuously written nonfiction books. At first glance, her latest book, The Ghosts of Eden Park, is the true story of the bootlegger who was the real-life inspiration for Jay Gatsby. But it’s also a window into the soul of this great, oh-so-strange nation of ours. The Ghosts of Eden Park is out August 6, and you should preorder it here now.
The first book I ever read of Abbott’s was Sin in the Second City, which was ostensibly about a Chicago brothel in the early 20th century but actually about a particular species of moral hysteria that felt scarily familiar to this modern reader (and still does). All of Abbott’s books—like the one about burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee or the one about Confederate women spies during the American Civil War—are true stories yet read like novels you can’t put down. Back in j-school we dreamed of writing books like this. They were the highest form of our craft; writers like Abbott raise it to an art form.
The Ghosts of Eden Park pubs just ahead of the 100th anniversary of Prohibition. It’s the true story of George Remus: a teetotaling bootlegger, erudite madman, and the strangest, most intriguing character Abbott says she’s ever encountered in history. Remus never wore underwear (quite the scandal in 1920s America), gave away brand-new Pontiacs as party favors, and spoke of himself in the third person: “Remus was in the whiskey business, and Remus was the biggest man in the business.”
Remus rides high until his wife falls in love with the very federal agent who incarcerated him, sparking a love triangle that reaches the highest levels of government—and which can only end in murder. The book is nonfiction with all the twists and turns of a thriller. It’s a tale so much stranger than fiction it has to be true.
One of the cool things about the story is learning about Remus’s nemesis Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant US Attorney who was the highest ranking woman in the US government at the time. In her private life, Willebrandt wrote about the obstacles and challenges she faced in that position. As I read her words, I was struck again by that same, scarily familiar feeling that things in this nation have perhaps not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has.
I asked Abbott three quick questions about booze and her characters.
Do you have a favorite whiskey?
I am still a whiskey novice, but I’d say The Macallan. A British friend advised me that it’s the only drink that doesn’t cause a hangover, and so far he’s proved right.
Have you tried that new Remus bourbon?
No, I can’t buy it anywhere in NYC! But I look forward to trying it when I’m on tour. George Remus Bourbon is actually sponsoring my events in Cincinnati and Louisville.
How long do you think we will need to wait for a Mabel Willebrandt whiskey?
That’s a brilliant idea, and someone should get on that ASAP. Ironically, Remus was a teetotaler who never drank a drop of alcohol, while Willebrandt, the “czarina of Prohibition” (in Remus’s words) enjoyed her drink. But she preferred California clarets, not whiskey.
Anyhoo—please check out The Ghosts of Eden Park if you’re looking for a summer read. See Abbott’s website for more cool info on the characters or to read an excerpt of the book. If nothing else, you gotta watch the trailer.
I’ll leave you with one of Remus’s strangest sayings, and the greatest excuse anyone has ever put forth to explain away his bad behavior: “Remus’s brain exploded.” To decide for yourself if a brain explosion actually occurred, you’ll have to read the book.
All I can say is, D’Agnese loved it.
Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!