A review of Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring”

“The Trip to Echo Springs” is part travelogue, part literary biography of 6 US writers with a central focus on their alcoholism.
Those writers are F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Olivia Laing tackles them in that order, although there is a lot of inter-crossing of their narratives around different themes, e.g. the effects of childhood trauma, and the roller-coasters of their work, love, marriage, the euphoric highs and catastrophic lows, and of course, their disastrous relationship with alcohol.
Laing draws no pat conclusions in looking at the above themes. Her central exploration is that of the relationship between alcohol and writing. Common themes include how these alcoholics both scapegoat their writing for their drinking, i.e. it leads them to places where they have to drink to get through, those intense arenas of the imagination. Another thread in all their writing lives is how drinking damages their productivity. More than one of them seems only to be able to write until midday before giving the rest of their waking hours to the bottle.
There a slight digression into the science of alcoholism and this is a fascinating short precis. Its brevity is partly explained on how little science knows on the subject, and partly because this is literary biography not scientific study.
Without a doubt, Laing captures how seductively these writers describe drinking, e.g. Hemmingway’s “lovely gin,” and she also captures it in her own descriptive passages, how John Cheever consoles himself early in the morning with “scoops of gin” from the kitchen fridge. She also brings out the parallels in these writers work between the cool reliefs of swimming, the cleansing of total immersion in fresh cold water, with a long cold drink.
But she also draws out well the horrors of the alcoholic’s mind and habits, most terribly the destructive effects on others, on partners, spouses, friends, children, anyone who gets between the drinker and the glass. It’s indeed a shock to read of Carver’s casual domestic abuse of his wife, of Tennessee Williams contemptible treatment of his loyal partner Frank ‘the horse,’ the vast sexual carelessness, the worthlessness and contempt with which others are treated. And the pitiable exhibitions they make of themselves. Think of John Berryman soiling himself at work, of public engagements and television interviews delivered in an incoherent stupor, of horrified friends yet again rescuing the manic drinker from some public and frenzied breakdown (an experience of more than one of the writers), and the sheer waste of it all. Laing is not slow to underscore the waste of life when a life is sold to drink, the wasted hours when more could have been written, the wasted opportunities in work and love. There is a romantic myth of how alcohol fuels magical writing. And it may cause or inspire the occasional hit, but how much more does it destroy?
Laing’s passport to writing on this subject is not her own alcoholism, but alcoholism in her family, in an alcoholic partner of her mother. The scenes where she describes being barricaded in her room as a girl against the howling rages of her mother’s partner are very sad. Not being an alcoholic herself lends her some objectivity, and does not strip her of any authority to discuss the subject, as some may argue. This work is structured around a journey, as Laing travels across America to various sites and shrines of these writers, to the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams, to the rivers and seas beloved by Hemingway, for example. She picks up minutiae of dialogue, of flashes of scenery from train windows, whilst the impressions of her journey and what she is studying tumble around in her head. These create bridges between her explorations of the writers. They are always relatively brief but I did find myself being mildly frustrated by them, wanting to return to the writers’ lives. That’s because Laing’s journey is not as fascinating as the writers she describes, although it does give the book its distinctive shape.
Finally, this is great ‘gateway’ reading. I felt urged to revisit play and novels I knew, and those mentioned and described that I didn’t, including Berryman’s work and his semi-auto-biographical and poignantly and tragically unfinished “Recovery.”
This is a great, memorable read on the magic of writing and the seductive but toxic power of alcohol.

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