Review: The Trip to Echo Spring
THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: ON WRITERS AND DRINKING
Non-fiction by Olivia Laing
Review by Jonathan Russell Clark
Issue No. 3 – March 2014
In his essay “On Literary Biography,” John Updike lays out what he considers the primary modes in which books about writers may operate . Some biographies, he writes, “prolong and extend our intimacy with the author,” as in the case of George D. Painter’s biography of Proust. Others function in a more “diagnostic mood,” the kind that deal with troubled writers like Kafka, Melville, or Hawthorne. Of these latter works, he writes: “From clinical examinations it is not a far step to those biographies…that ridicule and denigrate their subjects.” Recalling a number of drunk and unruly incidents from the biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Updike asks, “Now, after reading such a summation, don’t we feel released from ever having to take Scott Fitzgerald seriously again?”
One could imagine Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking falling into that same trap. Laing’s focus on the alcoholism of six great writers – the stories of their addictions, their problematic behavior and the nature of their rock bottoms – could become the basis of a work of character assassination.
Luckily, Laing’s book does not try to reduce these writers to messy, drunken archetypes. Instead, Laing’s investigation into the drinking lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver takes a more sympathetic approach. Alcoholism remains a major social problem. The issue of why so many of our great artists suffer from such an affliction seems an important question, not to be dealt with lightly.
The Trip to Echo Spring is more than a simple study of literary alcoholism. It is, as Joyce Carol Oates recently termed her review of My Life in Middlemarch, a “bibliomemoir – a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate confessional tone of autobiography.” When Laing was young, her mother’s partner became an erratic and sometimes violent drunk, causing much familial strife. This, in part, is the ostensible reason for Laing’s pursuit.
To add another layer of autiobiography, Laing’s book also describes her journey across America, visiting numerous sites related to the lives of her subjects, making this a bibliomemoir/travelogue. This is not without precedent. Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story is also an example of this sort of hybrid, and, in terms of incorporating his travels with his topic, a more successful one as well.
The travelogue aspects of The Trip to Echo Spring are where the book stumbles. Laing can’t quite tie in her literal journey with her academic journey. Nothing that happens as she travels adds to her examination. Mostly we get tedious accounts of the logistics of her transportation:
It took me six days to get from Key West to Port Angeles in Washington State, slogging from the south-eastern corner of America all the way up to its north-western extremity, a journey of almost 5,000 miles. I drove to Miami, flew to New Orleans to reclaim my case, slept a night there and then got on a train that would take me first to Chicago and then to Seattle.
Mostly, passages like the above transition back into the topic at hand via clunky transitions like this: “as the train wailed its low, harmonious cry I lay back in my seat and opened a book with the cheerful title of Recovery.” Laing, no doubt, had already read John Berryman’s unfinished novel before she set out across America, which typifies the largest problem of her book: she didn’t need to include her journey in order to write this book.
As to the main thrust of her work, Laing finds much greater success. Here we are given intimate portraits of great men at their worst. She tells us how Carver “smashed [his] wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man,” and how he “hit her with a wine bottle, severing an artery and causing her to lose almost sixty percent of her blood.” We learn of John Berryman’s multiple alcohol-related injuries – a twisted arm, a broken ankle – and numerous hospitalizations. While interned at Smithers Alcohol Treatment and Training Center, John Cheever, we are told, boasted about “his prodigious achievements, both in bed and on the page.” And yet, Laing looks at these men with empathy, earnestly hopeful about the idea of recovery. Most of the book investigates the myriad delusions and justifications that come with drinking, especially for writers so gifted in examining human behavior. Laing does well not to offer simplistic explanations for why writers are so often drawn to drink, but one reason does repeatedly rise to the surface: who could better fool themselves about their own behavior than writers?
But I think Laing’s most important contribution to this long-standing association is the deliberate separation of alcoholism and creative pain. Responding to Saul Bellow’s assertion that Berryman’s poems “contained a death threat” for which alcohol was “a stabilizer,” Laing writes:
In the 1970s, a good deal less was known about alcoholism than today…Nonetheless, it was a foolish thing to say. The poems weren’t killing Berryman. They didn’t cause delirium tremens, or give him gynaecomastia, or make him fall down flights of stairs, vomit or defecate in public places. Alcohol might have quietened his near omnipresent sense of panic on a drink by drink basis, but on a drink by drink basis it had also created a life of physical and moral disintegration and despair.
For too long, alcoholism has been treated as some abstract partner of art-making, as if there is something inherently (and especially) distressing and debilitating about creative work. Too many writers and artists legitimize their drinking via the myth of the alcoholic writer, convincing themselves (half jokingly, half seriously) that they are part of some tradition, instead of an on-going tragedy.
Reading Laing’s book, one can’t help but wonder what great plays Williams would have written had he not spent the last decades of his life mired in inebriation, or what novels Fitzgerald would have written had he not died at forty-four, or what works Hemingway and Berryman would have produced had they not taken their own lives. Bellow was wrong – art isn’t the “death threat,” and alcohol isn’t the “stabilizer”; it’s the other way around. And although these men tried their damnedest, although they were some of the best practitioners of their chosen fields, although they put their faith “in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone,” Laing shows us again that art did not – could not – save them.
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking
352 pages, $19.90
Jonathan Russell Clark’s work has appeared on The Millions and in Chautauqua, Thrasher Magazine, and Dig Boston, where he was a book and theater critic. He is currently in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is at work on a novel.