The trip to Echo Spring : why writers drink by Olivia Laing
Edinburgh : Canongate, 2013 ISBN 9781847677945
That there is something fascinating to many about the connexion between alcohol and writing is evidenced by the bibliography of the book under review, which contains a healthy selection of articles and books discussing the issue from all sorts of angles. One of the books in the bibliography, The Thirsty Muse : alcohol and the American writer, is a book I've read several times: I was hoping that The trip to Echo Spring would be another enjoyable essay into this murky subject, but alas I closed the book feeling disappointed.
Initially this book was full of promise - Laing writes near the beginning "There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be. That wasn't my intention. What I wanted was to discover how each of these men [Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver] - and, along the way, some of the many others who'd suffered from the disease [alcoholism] - experienced and thought about their addiction." Laing was hoping to come closer to finding the reason why such talented individuals drank so dangerously. Along the way there would be short diversions into medicine and psychology to help Laing and the reader along the path to understanding.
Unfortunately for the book these are not the only diversions. This book is, disappointingly, what I call "new" non-fiction, by which I mean non-fiction where the author's activity takes up a healthy share of the pages. This is a most annoying circumstance of our current literary age: whether it is an indication of the rise of a "me" generation, or whether it is felt that by doing so personalises and makes a book easier to read I don't know, but, apart from a very few works of genius it is a mode that usually fails, as it does here. As the book moves on the authorial intrusion becomes more, well, intrusive. Apart from a few passages where Laing describes why she became interested in the subject (her experiences with alcoholic family members / partners) and some descriptive material about places she visits that are to do with the authors, all of the writing about herself (mostly to do with the train journey she takes across the USA to visit the authorial sites) is really superfluous to the subject of the book, and is at times frankly strange. Snippets of conversation, descriptions of views from train windows, discussions with fellow passengers which have nothing to do with writing or alcohol just struck me as out of place in this book. It's a very brave or foolish author who sets their descriptive writing alongside quotations from the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway as Laing does in this book. The comparison is not favourable.
However, it's not all bad news - Laing does find some interesting connexions between the writers discussed, and does delve into their literature, letters, memoirs &c to find where they've either tried or failed to come to grips with their problems. Inevitably she has to, from time-to-time, discuss their shameful behaviour, but on the whole she stays true to her desire not to make that the main focus. Her writing on the families of the writers studied is interesting and I think does shine some light into the problems they had. As a person who doesn't read many biographies of writers, I was unaware that both Hemingway's and Berryman's fathers committed suicide - which had lasting effects on each of them.
In the end there is no definitive answer as to why writers and drink sometimes form such a toxic combination, although if there's any connecting link between these six it might be that they drank to hide their insecurities, from others and from themselves.
I will, after reading this, go and read some Cheever, and re-visit Carver and Berryman, who I haven't looked at for a long time. Laing has given me a new way to look at them.
If Laing had not decided to make this book a vehicle for herself as much as her subject she might have produced a very good short book. As it is, she has produced an average three hundred page book. A shame.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell