Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking is a frustrating book. On one level it purports to be an examination of what six major modern American writers who suffered from alcoholism and “were sometimes destroyed by it thought alcohol meant for them.” On another level it is an account of a pilgrimage to some of the more significant places—Manhattan, New Orleans, Key West—in the lives of these writers, where the personal reaction of the pilgrim and her journey is more often the major focus. Unfortunately the two levels don’t always blend cohesively.
Laing needs to decide if she wants to write serious literary criticism and biographical analysis or a personal account of a morbid kind of literary tourism. Certainly the effects of alcoholism on the lives and writings of authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver is a worthwhile project for a substantial study. Clearly their sickness and how they dealt with it played a major role in their work. A detailed systematic analysis of that role is not only ripe for study, it is crucial to understanding both the men and their writing. This book, unhappily, is not such a study.
On the other hand, the narrative of an intelligent, well-read woman’s trip through the hinterlands in search of a better understanding of literary figures, iconic and otherwise, would be worthwhile as well, and no mean task. No mean task that is, so long as the narrator doesn’t let herself get in the way. A book called “My Trip Through America in Search of Drinking Authors” might well appeal to some audiences, but not the same as the audience for the serious (read academic) student of literature.
It’s not that Laing has nothing worthwhile to say about the writers and their work. Her analyses of Berryman’s Recovery and Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” are illuminating. She has excellent points to make about Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a line from which she uses for her book’s title. She has meaningful things to say about major works and the lesser-known as well. She is obviously quite well acquainted with both the works of the authors and the work written about them. More often than not her readings are sensitive and informative.
But, while I am intensely interested in a book about the six authors, I have no interest in a book about Olivia Laing. The problem is that while I would like to know about Hemingway’s accidental meeting with his father in Key West, I do not care to meet the “morbidly obese” Michigan geologist Laing dined with on the train on her way to Port Angeles. I couldn’t care less about the hot dog she ate in Central Park while walking to an AA meeting in search of the spirit of John Cheever, the steak and jacket potato she ate in the dining car on her way to New Orleans, or the eggs Benedict she had with her mother on her birthday in Port Angeles. Her gossipy account of Cheever and Carver boozing in Iowa is at least titillating; her parroting of the remarks she overhears as another passenger on the train talks on the cell phone has nothing to recommend it.
Clearly there are those readers who will be enchanted by her personal commentary, finding in it a friendly context for the more literary material. Such readers may also find her poetic descriptions of significant places, as well as casual scenery, rewarding in and of themselves. She is fond of reporting on the birds she comes across and nature in general. And, for the enchanted, Laing’s own family’s brush with alcoholism may lend her some gravitas about the subject. There is an audience for this kind of personal literary travelogue, and that audience will find The Trip to Echo Spring quite an enjoyable read. Myself, I prefer my literary criticism neat.
In the end I’m not sure that some of the central questions about writing and drinking ever really get answered. Their alcoholism may have destroyed them, but did it in some way make them great writers?
Would Hemingway sober have been Hemingway? Would a Berryman on the wagon his whole life have written Dream Songs? Could an abstemious Fitzgerald have produced The Great Gatsby? Their lives, no doubt, would have been better, but would they have been great writers?