The Martyrdom of Sebastian Horsley Gives Bookish Partygoers Something to Drink (Absinthe) About

There was an exuberance to behold last night at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, where a crowd of editors, agents and other usual suspects gathered to toast the British countercultural icon and author Sebastian Horsley. Mr. Horsley has written a memoir called Dandy in the Underworld, which was published in paperback last week by Harper Perennial. He could not attend last night’s party, because when he arrived at Newark International Airport from London on Tuesday afternoon, he was not allowed entry into the United States and forced to fly home.

Word of this incident rang out immediately, and a solemn statement laying out the facts of the deportation was issued by his literary agency in England. “The flamboyant Horsley,” the press release said, “dressed in his trademark style, complete with top hat, three-piece suit and finger nail-polish, was immediately pulled aside for questioning…. It is believed the book’s content is what caused the writer’s return to the UK because of its candid and controversial account of Horsley’s extreme drug abuse, the author’s pro-prostitution views, and the author’s own self crucifixion in the Philippines in 2000.”

A paragraph down, a promise was made that the book party at Housing Works would go on as planned. This party would be a rally now. Members of the media, literary and publishing communities were expected to attend. The press release was forwarded widely, and by the following morning, Mr. Horsley was a veritable cause célèbre.

At the party, guests talked excitedly about what had happened, eating celery and drinking absinthe that was being prepared in the back of the room by a boyish assistant from HarperCollins. Francine Prose was said to be in attendance, and around 7:30, a rumor went around that Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta was thinking about coming by.

Mr. Horsley’s publisher, Carrie Kania of Harper Perennial, wore pearls.

“[Sebastian’s girlfriend] Rachel had her cell phone and called me, and just told me what was going on,” Ms. Kania said, explaining the circumstances under which she heard about Mr. Horsley’s detainment and how she tried to resolve the crisis. “I was on the phone with my lawyers just to try to figure out if there was anything I could do at this point. Is there anything—you know, what can I do? I just kind of sat there all day watching the phone ring hoping that it was Sebastian or Rachel just to give me an update. It was a pins and needles sort of situation.”

She went on: “I only got two hours of sleep last night. I couldn’t sleep, and I wrote a speech that I’m going to read tonight. I just—I don’t want to say I freaked out about it, I was just very … upset about it. I was very upset about it.”

Of course, the silver lining of the incident did not escape Ms. Kania. A big piece in The New York Times, the kind of Internet buzz money can’t buy … plus the party was going incredibly well.

“Without the author here, this is a pretty packed party for 45 minutes in!” Ms. Kania said.

It was true: The energy in the room was undeniable. And of course it was! History, after all, was happening. A thing had taken place, and it reminded people of other things, from the past, that they knew had been important. A young editor from Free Press came dressed in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a red, white, and blue dress. “I wanted to make a statement,” she said.

The young assistant from HarperCollins, the one tending bar in the back, said the absinthe he was serving was contributing to the atmosphere of the party.

“It’s just that it’s a forbidden drink, and it’s so appropriate for the author,” he said. “And now it’s even more appropriate!”

A publicist from Harper Perennial was working the floor and giving out press kits for Mr. Horsley’s book. She was asked whether the deportation—which had effectively wiped out Mr. Horsley’s entire promotional tour of the States—had been a nightmare or a gold mine.

“It’s been a bit of both,” she said. “You know, we love Sebastian. Do I want him here? Totally. But are we gonna make a lot of noise about what happened? Definitely, you know? So in some ways it’s great to get this press, but I would love for him to see this and see the reception he’s getting.”

She would not discuss if and how the Harper Perennial publicity team might seize on the opportunity. “I think we’re going to regroup after tonight,” she said. “And see, you know, what the reaction is, and what Sebastian wants, and who’s interested, and go from there.”

Around 8 p.m., Ms. Kania took the microphone and gave her speech. “This is not what I thought I was going to be saying,” she said, before launching into the story of what had taken place at Newark the day before. Her tone fluctuated as she spoke, as though she could not decide whether she was reciting a fairy tale or delivering a battle cry.

She closed by declaring that Mr. Horsley’s book was in good company. “Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho: all of these books have been deemed dangerous by the authorities and unfit for the general public to read. The Sex Pistols, banned in 1978. Sebastian banned, 30 years later.”

After Ms. Kania’s speech, a friend of Mr. Horsley’s, the British actor Robert Pereno, took the stage. “Could everybody wave to Sebastian?” Mr. Pereno said, pointing to a camera that was mounted on the second floor of the store. “He’s watching!”

Everybody waved cheerfully and shouted hello. Mr. Pereno recited a letter that Mr. Horsley had asked him to read to the partygoers. For the next 10 minutes or so, the crowd was treated to yet another version of the now legendary tale, this time sprinkled with some choice one-liners from Mr. Horsley’s repertoire and accompanied by a guy with a long beard who sat behind Mr. Pereno and played some sort of homemade guitar.

Afterward, a young woman named Carla was talking about how sad it was that Mr. Horsley could not come to the party. She was a friend of his from London, she said, and she’d come to New York specifically for him.

“We’ve been looking forward to it for months,” she said. “Sebastian is beside himself with disappointment. We’re all here and he isn’t. He’s terribly upset.” The Martyrdom of Sebastian Horsley Gives Bookish Partygoers Something to Drink (Absinthe) About