Picador. 2013. 352 pages.
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
When I learn about a book that’s about, “artists who were depressed” or “writers who killed themselves” or “politicians who all like to have sex with hippopotamuses,” I resist the blatant gimmick, the steadfast idealization of sick people because they happened to get a lot of attention. I also, in the case of writers, scorn the too easy equation of creative success with mental entropy. The immature artist’s excuse for why he’s not working is that he’s just not fucked up enough. Plenty of writers, artists, and scientists have been alcoholic, depressed, bestialics, and plenty of them have not. It always strikes me as the mark of a novice to think that he needs to find a pattern in what makes a good success story. I must admit, I’ve only recently given the practice up.
And so perhaps Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs On Writers and Drinking is the last echo inside me, a bumbling, relatively unpublished author, trying to make sense of success and failure. However, another truth is, I kept stumbling across it. First in the New York Times, then on a KERA radio interview in Dallas, and then, finally, at AWP Seattle, where a free copy of her book was waiting for me when the Picador agent closed up shop and left copies hanging out like cabbage that was going bad.
Let’s get this out of the way: Laing profiles six American writers who all happen to be alcoholic. Why American writers when Laing herself is British is a question Laing answered better on her NPR interview. Apparently she felt that there was something quintessentially American in the way these six handled their alcoholism, that rugged, individual mystique that, as Seymour Krim pointed out, has seeped into our pores like carcinogens until our brains metastasized in Manifest Destiny. Laing marvels at the lengths we Americans will go to white-knuckle our disturbances. Also, these six writers wrote about their booze. And that seems to be something Laing is particularly interested in: how alcohol influenced their words.
She profiles Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, and John Cheeve