‘All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 -1940)
There are so many pleasures in Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring that I’m not sure which one to start with. Even before reading it, I was intrigued by the overall conceit – namely to look at why writers are particularly drawn to alcohol. The book contains the extraordinary statistic that ‘four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel prize for literature were alcoholic’, although as a profession writers are certainly not unique. Rather, Laing suggests that they are perhaps better equipped to describe this relationship, and that from these reflections we can learn more about the wider problem of alcoholism, ‘what it can do to a man [and] how conclusively it can wipe out a life.’
Laing’s book examines six men, some of them connected (both by booze and in other ways): F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. I’ve read bits of Hemingway but none of the others, so being introduced to this unknown world also gave the book greater interest. Early on in the book Laing gives a description of Cheever’s story ‘The Swimmer’, which details a man’s return home via the swimming pools of his neighbours. It draws directly on Cheever’s experience of alcohol and the heavy cost it can exert. This is made increasingly clear as the book continues; of the six writers, two – Hemingway and Berryman – committed suicide, whilst ill-health and mental trauma dogged the lives of the others.
Laing structures her book around a journey across the United States, visiting the places where her writers lived, wrote and drank. She is a vivid observer of cities as varied as New York, New Orleans, Key West and Seattle, and has a nice eye for the people she meets. There’s a lot of Laing’s personality in the book, which is beautifully written and at turns insightful, emotional and sad. The fact that Laing relates these writers’ stories to the experience of alcoholism in her own family lends the book an additional weight, and makes her quest all the more affecting.
The reasons why these writers chose to drink to excess are varied and complex, and Laing avoids any easy, romantic answers. For many, anxiety in social situations contributed to them forming an early bond with alcohol. Several also used it to provide relief from a more general anxiety, whether about their work, their sexuality or in other areas of their lives. Each writer describes this phenomenon in different ways, and Laing pulls these different perspectives together, drawing several analogies of her own. For me, the most powerful connects alcohol and the ocean – many of the writers examined by Laing loved to swim or fish, and these preoccupations bleed through into their work. Alcohol seemed to them to be another way of losing themselves, letting go ‘in a little fantasy of cleanliness, purification, dissolution and death,’ as Laing describes it. Tennessee Williams summarises this idea more succinctly: ‘Liquor and swimming is all that keeps me going,’ he said in an interview in 1960, perhaps only half-joking.
I also learnt a lot from the book regarding the neurological and physical effects of alcohol addiction. One image that will stay with me is Laing’s examination of what alcoholism did to the creative powers of academic and poet John Berryman. Berryman took his own life (by drowning) in 1972, and the chapter relating to him ends with this especially chilly passage:
‘You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.’
Of Laing’s six writers, only Cheever and Carver managed to make a permanent withdrawal from alcohol. Laing ends her trip visiting Carver’s grave in Washington state. There she finds a notebook, filled with messages from visitors who wanted to set down just how much Carver’s writing meant to them – and many of them from people struggling with their addiction to alcohol. One comment is followed by a reply from Carver’s widow, Tess: ‘Have faith, grasp at straws and go to AA.’
It’s this possibility of redemption that closes Laing’s book, and ends it with a note of optimism. This is entirely apt; and one cannot forget the extraordinary body of work produced by the writers featured in The Road to Echo Spring, who arguably used alcohol as a support and a mechanism in order to do so. But one also wonders at the cost this dangerous, seductive drug exacted, and whether in the end it was wholly worth it.