22 April 2014
The Trip to Echo Spring
Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? 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 cafés of 1920s Paris; 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' New Orleans, 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.
On the very first page of The Trip to Echo Spring John Cheever and Raymond Carver are rolling up to a liquor store in Iowa City at 9am to get lit before they teach that day. Welcome to the University of Iowa - we have always been good at writing and drinking. *clinks glass* But in all seriousness, Laing has started her book this way to highlight how very far down into the addiction-hole these two very talented writers had got themselves. Which was very far. All six of the writers she focused on - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver - seemed to inhabit alcohol addictions as bad as their writing was great. Why is that? And why was it so hard for them to maintain any sort of sobriety?
This is a very interesting and readable set of linked essays (well, we keep it in the essays section at the store but it veers between memoir, biography, lit studies, and essay over the course of Laing's trip from New York to New Orleans to Key West to Port Angeles, WA, via Chicago - mostly on a train) musing over the relationship between six writers and their relationships with alcoholism. Laing presents details of the authors' drunken exploits almost clinically; there are no excuses made for the broken families and friendships caused by the bottle. Since I was less familiar with the authors' specific biographies Laing was presenting me with a lot of new information. The many collective attempts at sobriety by the men, with only Carver and Cheever attaining any lasting sobriety, are chilling in how deeply entrenched the addictive mechanism remains in the brain and body.
But what holds the book back, in my opinion, is that Laing concentrates solely on six men. Granted, she says alcoholic women writers hit far too close to a personal issue but I think it would have been good to pull in one or two women for contrast. Or perhaps a writer of a different race. Or perhaps not American? On the personal side, her own connection with an alcoholic family member sometimes provides contrast but is also very vague next to the detailed movements of Fitzgerald and especially Williams, who seemed to be a favorite.