In "The Trip to Echo Spring," Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Read more...
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In "The Trip to Echo Spring," Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to "A Moveable Feast." Often, they did their drinking together: Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafes of Paris in the 1920s; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.
Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever's New York to Williams's New Orleans, and from Hemingway's Key West to Carver's Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.
Beautiful, captivating, and original, "The Trip to Echo Spring" strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-09-30
- Reviewer: Staff
The tortured relationship between literary lions and their liquor illuminates the obscure terrain of psychology and art in this searching biographical meditation. Critic and travel writer Laing (To the River) explores the writing and drinking careers of six heavy-hitting American masters—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—while visiting their haunts, from Key West to Puget Sound. Incorporating insights from neuroscience, rehab doctrine, and her family’s alcoholic history, Laing reviews the excuses each writer offered for his alcoholism—anxiety, shyness, childhood trauma, hidden homosexuality, creative lubrication, the world’s cruelty—and totals the costs: suicide, wrecked homes, lurid benders, and diminished output. (Williams’s addled late plays may exhibit alcohol-induced “aphasia,” says Laing.) The book’s heart is Laing’s astute analysis of the pervasive presence and meaning of drink in the writers’ texts, and its reflection of the writers’ struggles to shape—and escape—reality. Laing explores this rich topic through an unusual mix of biographical research, astute literary interpretation, and wonderfully atmospheric travelogue; she forthrightly calls out her subjects on their alcoholic evasions and self-deceptions while maintaining a clear-eyed sympathy for their travails. The result is a fine study of a human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims. Photos. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit. (Jan.)
Curse of the creative
The genius writer as self-destructing alcoholic is a cliché, but as with all clichés, it originates in truth. Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton—it gets to be a very long list once you begin compiling. In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing offers a singular amalgam of biography, memoir, travelogue and literary criticism as she deftly refracts the lives and works of six writers through the prism of their alcohol dependence. The all-male, all-American lineup comprises F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman and Raymond Carver, a grouping with some surprising interconnections that help give shape to the book.
The trip referenced in the title is both a metaphor and an actual journey. The trip to Echo Spring, Laing reminds us, is how Brick describes his across-the-bedroom visits to the liquor cabinet in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Laing also embarks here on a literal sojourn of her own, one that takes her from New York to New Orleans to Key West to Port Angeles, Washington—and some points in between—in search of a personal connection to these writers.
Laing is a perceptive critic and elegant stylist, strongest when exploring the life and work of Williams, for whom she displays a special affinity, and quite sensitive to the complexities of Cheever, Fitzgerald and Berryman, as well. Her readings of Williams’ most famous plays, of Cheever’s stories (most notably “The Swimmer”) and of Berryman’s The Dream Songs are fresh and insightful. She seems least sympathetic to Hemingway and Carver, overall, arguably the most “manly” among the six writers.
Little by little, Laing reveals that the impetus for this book about writers and drinking grew out of her own childhood and an incident involving her mother’s alcoholic lover. The book is not particularly confessional, though, and she uses these personal elements merely as a springboard for larger ruminations on the origins and consequences of these writers’ own battles with alcohol. Not insignificantly, she delves into these men’s relationships with their often absent and/or suicidal fathers and their strong, controlling and sometimes emotionally distant mothers—subtext that lurks in much of their work.
Laing never comes to an overarching, all-illuminating conclusion about drinking and the individual tragedies of these writers’ lives. Perhaps such a conclusion is impossible to reach. She gets closest when, mining words from one of Berryman’s poems, she writes, “Hunger, liquor, need, piece, wrote. A sense was building in me that there was a hidden relationship between the two strategies of writing and drinking and that both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it—to give it fitness and shape, in Cheever’s phrase—and to deny that it was so.”
Sadly, Laing doesn’t explore the broader question of why America has produced more than its fair share of alcohol-soaked writers. As an Englishwoman, Laing does bring an outsider’s vantage point to the American destinations, although it is worth noting that none of these distinctive locales is “typically” American, if such a place could be said to exist. Except for Carver—whose work is so imbedded in the landscape Laing encounters in the Pacific Northwest—and to a lesser extent with Williams’ New Orleans, the connections between the places she visits, addiction and the literary oeuvres seem a bit tenuous at times.
Still, despite some gaps, the itinerary does give a pleasing structure to the book. Laing is an intelligent and congenial literary tour guide, and The Trip to Echo Spring is a journey well worth taking.