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.Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
Aside from being geniuses, what do F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver have in common? They all drank big, and drinking appears as a significant motif in their work. Former deputy books editor of the Observer, Laing grew up in a family afflicted with alcoholism and decided to sort out its burdens by studying the lives and works of these writers. Perennially astonishing authors framed by a perennially popular theme.[Page 57]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
London-based Laing (To the River) takes us on a trip across the United States in this unique collection of literary biographies, stopping and observing locations relevant to the lives of the authors she is investigating. Ambitiously immersed in the careers of six revered and often idolized writers, including novelist John Cheever (The Stories of John Cheever) and short story writer Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), Laing uses the authors' alcohol addiction as the linchpin that unifies their strange connectedness to one another. Laing, who grew up in an alcoholic family herself, mixes into her study an intimate and knowledgeable understanding of the chemistry of alcohol, its impact on one's thinking, and the mystique of its side effects. The culmination is a brightened awareness not only of the lives of the writers discussed but of their works, relationships, and worldviews. VERDICT A funny, tragic, and insightful journey for anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tender Is the Night), Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time), Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie), or John Berryman (The Dream Songs); prepare to be smitten with this fresh offering. Those unfamiliar with these writers will want to read their works. [See Prepub Alert, 7/22/13.]--Russell Miller, Prescott P.L., AZ[Page 91]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC