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The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking Hardcover – December 31, 2013
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*Starred Review* British journalist and writer Laing (To the River, 2012) conducts and chronicles intrepid and divulging literary journeys, here recounting her travels across America, tracking the role alcoholism played in the lives of John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams. She lifted “Echo Spring” from Williams’ Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because it’s Brick’s “nickname for the liquor cabinet,” based on a brand of bourbon, and because the writers’ painful experiences echo one another’s and often converge. In this enfolding and exposing inquiry, Laing analyzes and intermeshes the lives of her subjects and her own as a child in a household poisoned by drink. She learns how alcohol affects the brain and discovers clues to each writer’s addiction in their published and private writings as she visits their haunts in New York, New Orleans, Key West, and the Pacific Northwest. As she investigates the symbioses between alcoholism and trauma, creativity, and repressed homosexuality, she recalibrates our perception of the suffering and brilliance of these seminal writers. Intently observant, curious, and empathetic, Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by “the capacity of literature to somehow . . . make one feel less flinchingly alone.” --Donna Seaman
“Rather than lightheartedly skipping stones along the surface of the queasily common connection between great authors and their drinking habits, Laing dives deep, plummeting into some of her subjects' darkest impulses....Impecabbly researched...exposing details that, while mostly sad, are almost sickeningly absorbing. The result is a multilayered biography that reads quick as fiction, and is teeming with fantastically melancholy details of the writers we thought we knew.” ―Lauren Viera, The Chicago Tribune
“Most beguiling and incisive.” ―The New York Times
“[A] charming and gusto-driven look at the alcoholic insanity of six famous writers…There is much to learn from Laing's supple scholarship--and much to enjoy, too.” ―Lawrence Osborne, The New York Times Book Review
“Her exquisite readings of Hemingway's short story 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' and Cheever's short story 'The Swimmer' will make you want to reread those anthologized chestnuts and delve into Carver's and Berryman's perhaps less familiar poetry....Laing, wisely, doesn't reach any one-size-fits-all conclusions about the bond between the pen and the bottle. Some of her writers drink, it seems, to quell panic and self-disgust; others as a stimulant; others for who-knows-what reason. And, though she's a marvelous writer herself, Laing sticks to her original premise that alcoholic writers are the most eloquent chroniclers of their own addiction.” ―Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
“[An] eccentric, impassioned, belle-lettristic, graceful and haunted book....[Laing's] story has a rambling, daydream quality.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“The Trip to Echo Spring is a rewarding book to wend your way through even if the writers Laing focuses on Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and the American poet John Berryman--aren't among your particular favorites. Laing writes a fluid, fertile nonfiction... Although Laing isn't an alcoholic herself, she alludes to several adult relationships blighted by the disease, and her second-hand understanding of it is manifestly detailed and deep....Another powerful draw of The Trip to Echo Spring is the flashing imagination of Laing's literary criticism....A wondrously rewarding book.” ―Laura Miller, Salon
“Laing's writing is beautiful, her insights frequently surprising and powerful. The book's greatest virtue, however, is that it positively swells with empathy.” ―Rosie Schaap, Slate
“Olivia Laing's book is an exploration of alcoholism in six 20th-century American writers...that dazzles in both the scope of its ambition and the depths it reaches in analyzing its subjects. Laing, through the lens of extensive research both into the writer's biographies and into literature about alcoholism as a disease, paints these writers with a brush that renders them in new light....While there may be more uplifting books about writing and writers, few present the reader with such sobering realities about the downside to all those romantic, drunken nights in Paris or Key West.” ―Interview
“Olivia Laing emerges as a kind of British Susan Orlean, combining nonfiction narrative, travel writing, literary criticism and a touch of memoir in a personable style....Her descriptions of the landscape she sees, the conversations she overhears and the people she runs into are sparkling....Without building to a specific point or climax, Laing keeps you on board through her journey...Your head filled with the questions and answers so interestingly raised here, you will want to take a long look at both.” ―Newsday
“The Trip to Echo Spring...contains astute observations about addiction....Laing provides a remarkably cogent explanation of alcohol's effects on the brain and emotions.” ―Tampa Bay Times
“The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing's remarkable book about six alcoholic American writers, reminds me of the overhead projections we watched in classrooms before PowerPoint came along, in which several transparent sheets were artfully lined up atop each other to produce a complex document....I've read many words about the alcoholism of literary writers, and many more words about the 12 Step model of addiction and recovery. But until "Echo Spring," I'd never read a writer who bridged both worlds with such intelligence, grace and thoughtfulness.” ―Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“A funny, tragic, and insightful journey for anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, or John Berryman; prepare to be smitten with this fresh offering. Those unfamiliar with these writers will want to read their works.” ―Library Journal (starred review)
“Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by 'the capacity of literature to somehow...make one feel less flinchingly alone.'” ―Booklist (starred review)
“The tortured relationship between literary lions and their liquor illuminates the obscure terrain of psychology and art in this searching biographical medidation....Laing's astute analysis of the pervasive presence and meaning of drink in the writers' texts, and its reflection of the writers' struggle to shape--and escape--reality...A fine study of human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims” ―Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“I'm sorry I've finished this wonderful book because I feel I've been talking to a wise friend. I've been trying to work out exactly how Olivia Laing drew me in, because I hardly drink myself and have no particular attachment to the group of writers whose trials she describes. I think the tone is beautifully modulated, knowledgeable yet intimate, and she can evoke a state of mind as gracefully as she evokes a landscape....I think this is a book for all writers or would-be writers, whether succeeding or failing, whether standing on their feet or flat on the pavement....It's one of the best books I've read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring.” ―Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize–winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
“I loved The Trip to Echo Spring. It's a beautiful book that has stayed with me in a profound way.” ―Nick Cave
“The Trip to Echo Spring...thank God, never reductively answers the question [why writers drink] but thoughtfully explores it through an examination of the lives and careers of 'Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Raymond Carver among others.” ―Jay McInerney
“A beguiling, beautifully written journey in search of six famous literary drunks. What gives her book its brilliance and originality...[is] the quality of its writing.” ―The Sunday Times (London)
“The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape.” ―The Independent (London)
“Laing's analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd. But what makes The Trip to Echo Spring truly worthwhile is that she, like those she writes about, is a terrific writer.” ―The Times (London)
“This book is a triumphant exercise in creative reading in which diary entries, letters, poems, stories and plays are woven together to explore deep, interconnected themes of dependence, denial and self-destructiveness. It is a testimony to this book's compelling power that having finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again.” ―Scotland on Sunday
“Like a night out with an academically-inclined Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner. Sodden, surprising, riotous, and crazily up and down. Welsh puritan that I am, I loved it.” ―Daily Mail
“The book's subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. …[Laing has produced] a nuanced portrait--via biography, memoir, analysis--of the urge of the hyperarticulate to get raving drunk.” ―New Statesman (London)
“It's deliciously evocative, Laing's melancholic and lyrical style conjuring the location, before effortlessly segueing into medical facts about alcoholism, the effects on the lives of each writer, and well-chosen passages from their work. This is a highly accomplished book, and highly recommended.” ―List (London)
“Matches smart textual analysis of 20th-century greats with down-and-dirty ferreting....A superb idea, exceptionally well executed.” ―Metro (London)
Top customer reviews
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.
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.