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Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs On Writers and Drinking is the last echo inside me, a bumbling, relatively unpublished author, trying to make sense of success and failure.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 Cheever — their alcoholism, their writing, and their alcoholism as seen through their writing. Mostly this is not a book about writers but about alcoholism as seen through the terms of its most cognizant abusers.
Skeptical though I was of the enterprise, I couldn’t put the book down. Ignorance helped my salivation. I had no idea Tennessee Williams was boozed up when he died, choking on a cap to eye drops that he held in his teeth while he administered his tears. As a nonfiction party card carrier, I had no idea how eloquent Cheever could be about the disease while in the throes of it, an American Thomas De Quincey with a fictionalized (in several stories) alcoholic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
Brilliantly, Laing shuns a standard play-by-play of these authors’ lives. Though each writer has a chapter, Laing sprinkles their words and their histories throughout the text. The organizing principal is a journey across America, mostly by rail, mostly uncomplaining, as she encounters some of the cities most influential to these wordsmiths. Pleasantly she isn’t your standard European, whining across the fifty states, begging a cup of tea, desperate for a pub.
Instead Laing attempts another maneuver that I’m very struck by. She situates the writers in the context of the urban and natural world that she finds their stories in. “Whatever happens,” she writes, “happens here, in the populated earth… I didn’t want to divorce the neural drama of alcoholism from the world, the quick and grubby world in which it takes place” (34).
This begins Laing’s splicing of avian life with the destructive habits of her subjects, of landscape as not just backdrop but as a character in the six interwoven tragedies. Which may sound better than what Laing actually pulls off, as the bird references almost completely taper out, and we are stuck in her mind as she stares out of train windows and in the writers’ minds as they dictate their struggles and their sorrows in stories and journ
There are a few more oddities: Berryman doesn’t show up until fully half the book is over. Carver, though he appears on page one, is absent for two hundred pages. But overall, I was surprised by the deft way Laing moves between writers and from the personal to the historical and literary and scientific. There are many different layers that coexist in this text, an impressive juggling act. There is enough of Laing’s own backstory and personal reflections that we feel in the hands of an invested author who isn’t just trying to expose these literary heros. A lesser writer would hide behind the writers’ gut-wrenching anxiety, but Laing mediates openly her interpretation, presenting her chapters as essayistic discoveries. Here is an example of how Laing’s presence and smart delivery can make an ordinary idea strike:
“But of all these things it was the two shaven-headed boys who stayed with me most strongly a warning, as if I needed it, that addiction is never an abstract matter, but one that brings — and here the small word hurt came into my throat and stuck there for a second” (133).
I have some reservations with Laing’s book, the gimmicky nature, the absence of women (Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Jean Stafford — the lady boozers), and the way the book seems to skate a bit over the lives of the six, diving deep enough to retrieve nuggets of illumination and compassion, but leaving the six in a foggy enigma marked by their struggles. Williams seems to get the fullest treatment, Carver, perhaps, the flimsiest.
Still, this is a valuable book, not just because these are our American literary legends deconstructed by their shared bad habits, but because we see the vulnerability that this disease renders and the struggle it takes to understand it, even by the people most cognizant, most self-reflective about their troubles.