March 9, 2014
Writers and their drinks... or booze
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing. Picador.
NEW YORK — “I am just now dead drunk.” That’s probably not verbatim, but it’s how I remember a line in a letter, a note, really, that the great Scots poet Robert Burns dashed off in a shaky hand. I saw the note a decade ago, maybe more, in a lovely exhibit at the New York Public Library featuring handwritten letters and other ephemera and paratextual flotsam by famous poets. I spent more than an hour walking through the gallery, lingering over each specimen displayed in each vitrine, charmed by all of it.
And now I remember nothing save that wee note of Burns’. It’s a little embarrassing that among all the objects I saw that day, the only one that sticks is the one about being drunk. I wasn’t drunk when I saw the exhibit, but my memories of it feel not unlike those one might try to patch together and put in order after a bender: hazy, inchoate, highly selective. It’s not liquor that has prevented me from remembering more; it’s that my interest in a poet’s engagement with liquor has overshadowed all else. It bothers me that now I can recall just that one item from that show, that single letter.
It bothers me, but I know I’m not alone here: I think many of us want it both ways when it comes to writers, perhaps when it comes to artists of all kinds. We want them to be different, set apart, special. At the same time, we also want them to sound like us — especially us at our weakest, our most fragile, our most incapacitated.
That there’s a substantial cross-cultural roster of writers who readily indulge us in this dual impulse seems obvious, but now we have a fine writer who has taken it upon herself to consider the relationship between writers and alcoholism with care and delicacy. In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing, a British woman, takes as her subjects six US men, six iconic writers, six alcoholics: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Among them there are two suicides. There are two who ultimately got sober. There are grimly unhappy childhoods. The book is a hybrid: it’s memoir. It’s biography. It’s literary criticism. And it’s structured as a travelogue, with its author travelling the United States to position herself precisely in many of the places that shaped her subjects.
I was moved by, and learned much from, Laing’s engagement with each of these authors — dazzled by the fine, deft way in which she weaves together their individual biographies and creative output, and the way in which she shows how each subject interacts (in real life or thematically) with each other. She alerted me to a Cheever I’d not considered before, one “stranger and more subversive than his increasingly Waspy scenery suggests,” and sent me back to The Swimmer, a story I’d not read in decades. Among her subjects, it is Carver whose work I know best, but, here, too, a reader benefits from Laing’s fresh assay, especially with respect to his often overlooked and underrated poetry. She has just the right phrase to characterize his late poems — “wide-open” — and her recounting of a visit to his graveside is among the book’s most affecting portions. Carver claimed to be an atheist, she reminds us, while illuminating how pervasive faith is in his writing, in quiet ways before he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and more explicitly after.
But Laing is at her most brilliant on Berryman. Her close reading of a portion of his Dream Song 311 is thrilling, both raw and fully felt: “The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.” Again, she sent me back to my bookshelves to pull out something wonderful that I’d let languish there too long.
Her book’s evocative title comes from Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made an impression on Laing when she first read it as a teen. It was, she writes, “the first time I found the behaviour I’d grown up amid not only named and delineated but actively confronted.” And one scene in particular stuck with her:
Brick, the drunkard, has been summoned by his father. Big Daddy is on a talking jag and after a while Brick asks for his crutch. “Where you goin’?” Big Daddy asks, and Brick replies, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Physically, Echo Spring is nothing more than a nickname for a liquor cabinet...
Symbolically, though, it refers to something different: perhaps the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.
It’s so effective as a title and as a euphemism, this trip to Echo Spring. The book’s subtitle (for the US edition, anyway) — On Writers and Drinking — is less apt. Laing is dealing here with some seriously hard cases, and a more fitting subtitle would be On Writers and Alcoholism.
Throughout, the author’s broader claims about drinking and the discourse of drinking are less persuasive than her rich, individual readings of these writers, less elegant than her descriptions of cityscapes and the natural world, less compelling than her open-hearted reflections on the place of drinking in her own life and in her own family.
We learn in a few brisk but harrowing pages that her mother’s partner, Diana, was an alcoholic quite capable of creating terror in the household: “What I remember is waking to the sound of screaming. Each time, it was like witnessing a possession, like watching someone overtaken by an evil spirit. Diana’s voice would thicken and become almost inhuman.”
Despite having had to endure such a frightening extreme, and despite demonstrating that she knows the medical literature of alcoholism well, at many moments Laing does not seem willing to believe that there’s any real distinction to be made between a drinker and an alcoholic, as though the former must inevitably morph or merge into the latter, as they seamlessly do here:
The desire to drink, and the repercussions it has on the drinker’s physical, emotional and social selves, are buried beneath excuses, elisions and flat-out lies. An alcoholic might be understood in fact to live two lives, one concealed beneath the other.
When I consider the alcoholics I’ve known best, this rings true. But it is not true of the drinker who stops into his or her local a few times a week for a couple of pints, who has nothing to excuse, elide, lie about or conceal.
* Rosie Schaap writes the Drink column for the New York Times Magazine and tends bar in Brooklyn.