I’ve often wondered why it is many writers, especially great ones, seem to have alcoholic tendencies, and so I was immediately drawn to Olivia Laing’s newest book, The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, which examines the lives of six major male writers of the 20th century, all of them brilliant and all of them troubled and alcoholic. Laing takes her title from Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from Brick’s line “I’m taking a short little trip to Echo Spring.” Echo Spring is not only the name for the liquor cabinet—derived from a brand of bourbon—but is symbolic, Laing proposes, of the sense of quiet, the ceasing of “troubled thoughts” that alcohol helps these writers achieve. The trip aspect of her title is also integral, since the book is part travelogue, part criticism, and part memoir.
A native of England, Laing views the places she visits in the United States with a foreigner’s keen eye. Tying her journey to the lives of Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and John Berryman, she begins at the Hotel Elysee in New York City where Williams choked to death and ends up at Carver’s grave in Port Angeles, Washington, hoping she might thereby “come closer to understanding what alcohol addiction means, or at least to finding out what those who struggled with and were sometimes destroyed by it thought alcohol had meant for them.” As she meanders across the country, largely by rail, her mind moves too, across the intricate landscape of the lives of these men, noting especially where their lives intersect (Cheever and Carver both teaching for a semester at Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for instance, and the long-lasting friendship of Fitzgerald and Hemingway), and deep into their work. With the empathy of the finest of nonfiction writers, she brings these men to life, in all their wounded complexity, looking at their childhoods and their later relationships with alcohol, women and their work, seeking parallels and commonalities. Among these are overbearing mothers, fathers who commit suicide, and a deep love of water—of rivers, oceans, and swimming pools.
But for all its connections, the book had some blanks, the main one being Laing’s reason for focusing solely on male writers when many great women writers were also alcoholics. In the first chapter, she gives a cursory explanation in a parenthetical aside, “There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.” Later, in the memoir sections woven throughout the book, we learn that her own early life had been informed by alcoholism—her mother’s female partner was alcoholic when Laing was young. Yet this strand of the narrative pales (at least for me) beside the lives of the alcoholic geniuses. Although it is the part of Laing’s history that first drew her to Tennessee Williams, especially to his play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, in which she first recognized the dynamics of the home she grew up in, the memoir aspect lacks the urgent brilliance of the other sections. I found myself wondering if a stronger connection of the men’s lives with her own was the just missing link that might have bolstered this aspect of the narrative.
That said, it hardly detracted from the story at large. Overall, The Trip to Echo Spring shimmers with insights and details, and leaves the reader enriched, educated, and inspired by the words of these great writers as seen through Laing’s insightful lens.