Reviews for Trip to Echo Spring : On Writers and Drinking

Booklist Reviews 2013 November #2
*Starred Review* British journalist and writer Laing (To the River, 2012) conducts and chronicles intrepid and divulging literary journeys, here recounting her travels across America, tracking the role alcoholism played in the lives of John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams. She lifted "Echo Spring" from Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because it's Brick's "nickname for the liquor cabinet," based on a brand of bourbon, and because the writers' painful experiences echo one another's and often converge. In this enfolding and exposing inquiry, Laing analyzes and intermeshes the lives of her subjects and her own as a child in a household poisoned by drink. She learns how alcohol affects the brain and discovers clues to each writer's addiction in their published and private writings as she visits their haunts in New York, New Orleans, Key West, and the Pacific Northwest. As she investigates the symbioses between alcoholism and trauma, creativity, and repressed homosexuality, she recalibrates our perception of the suffering and brilliance of these seminal writers. Intently observant, curious, and empathetic, Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by "the capacity of literature to somehow . . . make one feel less flinchingly alone." Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2014 January
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.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 November #1
What can we learn from the sodden stories of six gifted but alcoholic writers? Much--and maybe not enough. Freelance journalist Laing, (To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, 2011), who has a history of alcoholism in her own family, provides an enlightening look at the struggles of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver--six men (she explains why she included no women) whose careers and lives were shaken and shortened by their addiction to alcohol. She notes that she selected them, among other things, because their lives intersected in places. Laing, who lives in England, decided to visit key sites in these writers' lives and to do so, as much as possible, by train. Throughout, she comments--sometimes quite eloquently--about the scenery in and outside her rail car. Laing also evinces great familiarity with the principal texts of her writers, including their published and unpublished journals, letters and other relevant documents. She also instructs us about the effects of alcohol on the brain (including the devastating destruction of memory) and the rest of the body, as well as the social behavior of heavy drinkers, and she sketches the history and strategies of Alcoholics Anonymous and of other ways to battle the disease. Since we know the sorry fates of all these writers, there is an almost unbearable poignancy about Laing's journey to sites of meltdowns and suicides. She wanders into bars the writers had frequented, looks at their residences in New York, New Orleans, Key West, Port Angeles and elsewhere, and continually tries to imagine the men in these settings. She ends in kind of a hard place: with the axiomatic message that alcoholics need to take charge of their lives and just stop. These six guys didn't find that too easy. A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2013 August #1

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.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 November #2

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

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 September #5

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.)

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