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.