‘The Trip to Echo Spring’: On the trail of writers and drinking
Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring” looks at six famous authors and the role alcohol addiction played in their writing. Laing reads Thursday, Jan. 16, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Years ago, researching a grad-school thesis, I had the opportunity to view some of Dorothy Parker’s papers at Columbia University. Among them was a handwritten draft of a speech, planned for a writers’ conference. Early on, the cursive writing was tidy and the wit sharp — but, as the pages progressed, the writing became enormous and sprawling (a sentence would take an entire yellowed page) and the wit turned bitter, flat, nonsensical.
I could see, in my mind’s eye, the chair in which she sat, with a writing tablet on her lap and a bottle nearby, its contents rapidly diminishing. Those sad pages seemed an uncanny picture of what alcohol can do to a sparkling mind.
For her fascinating book “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” (Picador, 340 pp., $26) British writer Olivia Laing looked at many such pages. She focuses on six brilliant writers and notorious drinkers — John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and the poet John Berryman (who once, drunk in an emergency room, bellowed “I feel like a minor character in a bad Scott Fitzgerald novel”) — and follows their trail on a road trip across America. Along the way, she ponders the connections between the men, the tragedies and fears that drove them to drink, the beautiful work produced despite heavy alcohol use, her own background as the child of an alcoholic, and the landscapes viewed from her train windows.
The book is a unique combination of literary criticism, travelogue and memoir, elegantly and poetically written; you feel sorry when it’s over, like a long-anticipated trip ended too soon.
Laing’s journey takes her from Cheever’s Manhattan to the Florida of Hemingway and Williams (who once wrote that the palm trees made wonderful sounds, “like ladies running barefooted in silk skirts downstairs”) to our own backyard. At Carver’s grave in Port Angeles, a notebook sealed in a zip-lock bag awaits thoughts from visitors, many struggling with addiction themselves. Along the way, elegantly interwoven, we get the life stories of these six men, hear their voices through quotes of their fiction and letters, learn of their struggles to control their drinking, and practically smell the scotch wafting off them.
Nothing is romanticized here. Laing doesn’t spare us the terrible stories of violence, of vomiting in somebody’s hallway, of the paralyzing fear of an examined life without the bottle, of drying out and vowing and waking up drunk days later. But she’s most interested in how these writers thought and wrote about their addiction. Fitzgerald’s haunting justification — he died, sodden and sad, at 44 — was that “my stories written while sober are stupid ... all reasoned out, not felt.” Hemingway, insistent to the end that drinking helped him, called liquor “the only mechanical relief” against the oppressions of modern life.
Reading “The Trip to Echo Spring” (the title comes from a line in a Williams play) is both terribly sad and oddly exhilarating, from the wisdom and calm of Laing’s prose to the tantalizing fragments of her subjects’ work. (I had to run off and read a Cheever story immediately — “The Swimmer” — after reading of it here; it still seems to be following me around, in that magical way of great literature.) Ultimately, she’s awed by these writers’ abilities to create beauty while determinedly slipping away; something she calls the drinker’s doubleness, or what Williams once described as “the shocking coexistence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart.”
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.