In nearly every one of these the accounts of writers and drinking, the authors summons the usual suspects for examination: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carson McCullers, John Kennedy Toole, Raymond Carver, John Cheever (the list here is far from complete).
These biographers cover everything from the childhood traumas of their subjects to their genetic dispensation toward alcoholism. Some even get around to the idea that a few of their subjects simply enjoyed drinking, if for no other reason than it signaled respite, the end to a day of trying to create flesh and blood from ink and paper.
(One side-note: Have others noticed that the prose of some famous authors reflects their preferred choice of hooch? Fitzgerald’s style has the sharp, lovely clarity of a martini, Hemingway’s rum leads us to the tropics and the Gulfstream that he so loved, and Faulkner’s tangled, smoky sentences taste of bourbon and branch water).
It is true that so many of these writers either died or suffered a diminution of their talent as a result of their boozing. A few — Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Eugene O’Neill — did sober up and wrote some of their best work in their later years. But the greater number by far of these authors — Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer recipients — composed their best stuff in their drinking days, albeit in the early stages of their dissipation.
In The Trip To Echo Springs: On Writers And Drinking (Picador, 2014, 339 pages, $26) — Echo Springs is a euphemism for a liquor cabinet from Tennessee Williams’s play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — Olivia Laing travels by rail, air and roadway around the United States, seeking out the lives of American writers renowned both for their books and their capacity for liquor. She searches for John Cheever in New York, Tennessee Williams in Key West and New Orleans, Hemingway in Key West and Fitzgerald in the various towns where he wrote while Zelda, his wife, was treated for emotional and mental problems.
Like her predecessors in biography, Laing dissects her subjects psychologically, looking at their childhoods and at the other wounds inflicted by life: failed marriages, missed opportunities, attacks by critics, sexual confusions. She includes medical information on alcoholism, ruminates on Alcoholics Anonymous, and analyzes, some unsuccessfully, the links between the bottle and the literary life.
Laing seems particularly fascinated by Tennessee Williams. Because I knew so little about his personal life — I have seen his major plays and was aware that he had lived in poverty for years, that his mother was domineering, that he was gay — Laing’s comments on Williams, largely sympathetic, kept my interest. Her ramblings across America as she followed the peregrinations of the famous playwright helped somehow make him come to life on the page, reminding the reader that Williams lived life as a nomad, with his habitations ranging from small apartments and hotel rooms in his youth to more lavish quarters following his success. By revisiting these places, Laing imaginatively recreates the playwright himself.
What I find refreshing about The Trip to Echo Springs, as opposed to some of the other books on alcoholism and writers, is Laing’s relative lack of condemnation of those alcoholic writers. Certainly she disapproves of their extreme drinking, but she seems, more than others addressing this subject, to understand why they so loved alcohol.
At the end of her book, Laing reiterates the benefits of recovery from alcoholism. After examining a short story by Raymond Carver, who spent the last years of his life sober, she writes: “I mean we all carry something inside us that can be rejected; that can look silver in the light. You can deny it … You can despise it so much you drink yourself half to death. At the end of the day, though, the only thing to do is to take a hold of yourself, to gather up the broken parts. That’s when recovery begins. That’s when the second life — the good one — starts.”
Carver himself left a poem, “Gravy,” describing this “gathering up,” a poem mentioned in passing when Laing visits Carver’s grave in Port Angeles, Wash. This poem underlines Laing’s point about recovery.
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.”
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.