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Showing 1-10 of 105 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 128 reviews
on May 18, 2017
Ignore for a moment that Laing has foresworn drinking owing to alcoholic parents or whatever--this tome is devoid of wit, sarcasm, humor, insight, argument, really any of the cleverness or oblique confrontation or hell even feigned identification or imagination that you might expect from a Briton touring America to mull over the stories of raging American literary drunks.

Could a few drinking stories of her own possibly salvaged it? Or a dialog with, I donno, an actual drinking writer? Maybe. I know this much: she seeks stories from a romantic period where writers were often damaged but also libertines, but the recollections are never fun, rather dull, not insightful, and there's little context. Only something along the lines of "at this point Fitzgerald and Hemingway were estranged, with Hemingway playing the righteous lush because, though being horrifically alcohol dependent himself, his life and career were kept largely intact and the drunk persona fit him better etc. etc."

But she can't identify with this. Not the struggle to keep a drinker's life together; not the joy and release and coping effect of controlled (or unbridled) drinking; not the fear of a drunk to separate himself from that which he feels fuels his art. Because remember not only does she not offer a biting or controversial or even humorous take on these situations--she has no idea how these situations arise and evolve and why the temptation to start and the struggle to quit are major factors in a drunk's life: she doesn't drink.

Minus an interesting or entertaining take on their stories and without the ability to experience their pain and their faux-medicine of choice, she points us towards recovery platitudes that often weren't even realistic in much of the 20th Century (there was no Betty Ford for Fitzgerald's era) but even in our enlightened modern times seem hackneyed and like so much shawl-collared&warm-fire Monday morning quarterbacking when anyone can agree that Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Tennessee Wms were tragic figures but also brilliant and to apply 12-Step wisdom to their plights is to assume we would have even known their names had they been treated. We know full well liquor-fueled sprees and indeed whole lives were the inspiration or the fuel for much of these men's work, so I can't imagine that lightly poking at their corpses with the unfeeling stick of a sober person's lack of experience in the matter would do more than make her appear like some kind of retroactive addiction counselor. And that's not fun, nor informative, nor particularly imaginitive.
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on May 1, 2015
The alcoholic author’s an embedded staple of American fiction, figuratively speaking—something that seems necessary, but that all too often avoids critical scrutiny. One often sees the straight and narrow and respectable surfaces of their lives, while forgetting about the twisted contortions beneath.

Hokey metaphors aside, this alcoholic author can attest that it’s very easy to judge one’s worth as a writer by comparing oneself to the public success of those who have gone before, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds, the ones whose books have earned them Pulitzers and Nobels and seemingly permanent places in the firmament. (It’s easy, too, to use authorship as an excuse for alcoholism, to embrace the drama and the craziness of the latter in the hopes of using it as fodder for the former. Based on personal experience, it does eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, and one also ends up tempted to entirely abandon books for bottles.)

I digress. Laing’s excellently written and thoroughly researched book performs a valuable public service here, not by pointing out the myriad exceptions to the alcoholic author rule (both the infinity of anonymous alcoholics who have fallen by the wayside without succeeding as authors, and the authors who didn’t drink alcoholically) but by instead casting a critical eye on the most noteworthy examples, looking behind the simple and attractive front, pulling them out to analyze them in their entirety, and seeing how they often fall apart.

As Laing writes, there are no shortage of potential subjects for this book. But for the sake of narrative, she focuses on six lives that are more or less interconnected at various points: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Along the way, she details enough of her personal story to show that she’s no crusading teetotaler, but rather an average temperate drinker (a “normie,” in recoveryspeak) who’s witnessed the ugliness of unchecked alcoholism firsthand.

It works in no small part because of the testimony of the subjects themselves, expressed at length in diaries and journals and letters that give their own witness to that unattractive side of their lives. And Laing does a great job of both sampling and distilling the private lives of these public men. Writing about Tennessee Williams’ diary, for instance, Laing says, “…his grand theme…is the unremitting drama of his physical self, which is to say sex, illness, anxiety and self-medication in the form of alcohol, Seconal and the sedatives he called pinkies…” Laing continues “The difference between this voice and the voice of the plays and essays is so profound that at times it’s hard to believe they belong to the same person. One is large-hearted and attentive to human pain; the other is self-inetersted, his attention directed not out into the world but inward, illuminating as if by torchlight the smallest shifts in his own person, from the condition of his stools to the disgust he experiences after ejaculation.”

It shouldn’t come as entirely a surprise that life as an alcoholic author isn’t as great as the romanticized mythos—Hemingway of course took his own life, so whatever joy and happiness his career brought him was eventually slain by something that must have felt far more vast and bleak. But Laing’s explorations seem to make it abundantly clear that the unhappy later years were far more the rule than the exception. Williams’ later and lesser works, Hemingway’s diminishing output in the latter half of the 1950s, and Fitzgerald’s struggles with madness and depression suggest that they were all very much lessened by what many believe to be a progressive disease. The trip alluded to in the title is not, after all, a real trip; it’s taken from dialogue from one of Williams’ characters, and it perfectly represents the false hope of the alcoholic, the desire to find peace of mind in the bottle.

For some, it may still seem like a fair (if Faustian) bargain—to attain fame and stature at the expense of moral and physical degradation. (I know that, for me, it once felt like a worthy tradeoff.) And many alcoholic authors will, quite understandably, continue to make that deal. But Laing looks, too, at the later lives of those who at last found a way out of that false choice, while continuing to write excellently. And that, in the end, is this book’s beautiful and lasting message: contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous assertion, there are second acts, even for the alcoholic author. It’s possible to integrate it all into a seamless whole—to have both a body of work, and a life.
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on February 26, 2014
Having read Carol Sklenica's Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life and Blake Bailey's Cheever, I was intrigued by Laing's premise. Both biographers tell the story of how Carver and Cheever's lives briefly intersected at a writer's conference. That time together was literally fuelled by their mutual appreciation of a drink. I am fascinated by these two especially Cheever so I most enjoyed The Trip to Echo Spring when they are featured. Less so was I drawn in by the other writers and I must admit I skipped over the author's references to her own life and travels.

To be fair, Laing does a fine job cataloguing the physical and mental impacts of drinking. Rightfully, there is emphasis on what happens to the family of heavy drinkers. The six writers profiled share Freudian roots, self-hatred, and insecurity. This led to drink, abuse of their immediate family and flagrant, flamboyant promiscuity.

It is amazing how much that act of drinking is tied to craft of writing. Many greats have succumbed to the addiction. Perhaps it is because alcohol is both depressant and intoxicant that it fits the practice. As Hemingway said, "Write drunk. Edit sober." This book is meant to be an indictment of drinking yet, ironically, it cannot help but be celebratory given what these drunkards accomplished. They produced some of the most intoxicating prose and poured out the most compelling narratives of the 20th Century. I now believe Cheever's The Swimmer carries great reference to alcohol including how one can lose the concept of time passing and the propelling of one forward with the help of liquid.

A few years ago I attended an event in Manhattan celebrating Cheever's 100th birthday. The speakers and content noted that alcohol was essential to his writing. His work is marked by it and will forever carry that association. However, the man was also lauded for his ability to quit the drink and recoup a bit of control and self-dignity. It was a wonderful, memorable and rich celebration that passed without a drink in sight.
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on June 3, 2017
This is my favorite type of non fiction writing,--connecting people, facts and topics, inspired by and pursued with personal meanings and experiences. The book is very much about the author's mental, emotional and physical journey to the world of these 6 writers whose work the author, clearly admires and through which she also shares her own personal experiences of alcohol in the family. The author's discipline is remarkable, she maintains the impossible balance of objectivity, criticism, empathy and reality throughout the book and finishes it with a very satisfying conclusion as well. As praised by many critics for her ability to present the topics of writing and drinking without demonizing or glamourizing, this book definitely has a high level of sophistication. She relates to her" faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone. I thought of myself as a child, of how I became a reader because tracts of my life were unendurable." She ends the book by quoting John Cheever which I found very moving. "the sense is of one's total usefulness. we all have a power of control, it's part of our lives: we have it in love, in work that we love doing. It's a sense of ecstasy, as simple as that. the sense is that 'this
is my usefulness, and I can do it all the way through.' It always leaves you feeling great. In short, you've made sense of your life."
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on July 22, 2017
Interesting in an academic way. Laing provides a lot of academic/scientific information about alcoholism and its effect on these four towering literary figures. More than I wanted actually. I believe I was expecting something more dramatic, romantic...and that's not what the author intended. Her work is thorough, factual and enriched with anecdotes by friends of these men. Too bad she couldn't include Dorothy Parker.
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on March 6, 2014
Fun, inspiring, informative and beautifully written, if just a little heavy on the crusader part. Okay, looking at the other reviews it's really a mixed bag of opinions, but for someone who loves reading about the writers' lives as much as reading their work, this is a juicy book. I actually enjoyed the travelogue part, because it brought the intention closer to me. "Trip to Echo Spring" was about the process of writing as much as it was about the writers and their work, and in a sense, a personal journey. I didn't mind reading about how someone else felt about these writers and their addictions. It spoke to me in a very personal way and dug into the writers with a fearlessness that I have never in the dozens of books I've read about these writers experienced before.

I got it on Kindle, but am considering purchasing a hard copy. The book is a keeper. I will be reading Cheever next with a new passion.
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on March 30, 2015
I started it and got bored. I'm a recovering alcoholic and thought it would be interesting, but I lost interest. She lists famous writers and then has excerpts from their stories. Just read those writers and skip this book, although the cover is cool and looks good in my bookcase.
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on November 21, 2016
This book mixes the travails of major American authors with alcohol with the travels of the English woman author to their favorite haunts. Because Ms. Laing is such a deft and interesting writer, it works. I particularly liked her treatment of Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. A big disappointed she did not include the alcoholic William Faulkner or perhaps even Eugene O'Neill among her subjects. A good read for anyone interested in modern American literature.
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on August 15, 2015
As a student of alcoholic writers, particularly Carver and Cheever, this book was a must. However, Laing did something beyond a biography. She intertwines the lives and literature of six alcoholic male writers with her own dealings with alcoholism.

I have recommended this book to people outside of my field, and they also loved it. The book is a great read no matter who you are or what your discipline and that, my dear friends, is a true gem.
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on December 28, 2014
I am totally dumbstruck that these renowned authors could produce the literary masterpieces they did while a good deal of the time their brains were pickling in an over abundance of alcoholic beverages. It would almost lead one to think that perhaps that's the price that must be paid for outstanding creativity. While producing their award winning stories, they were at the same time committing long, lingering suicide. The juxtaposition is mind boggling. These revelations will cause the reader to reread some of their old favorites in total disbelief as to the various authors' states of mind. It ain't pretty but there is food for thought here.
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