Sunday, November 10, 2013

Down and out

Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is a sobering book. We have a bad tendency to romanticise the figure of the alcohol-fuelled writer – the sodden but eloquent poet, the hard-drinking novelist holding court in the Parisian bar. Those macho myths begin to curl up and die of shame about a page into Laing’s haunting book, which omits few details about the pitiful realities of alcoholic life.  

Laing’s effort to strip away liquor’s allure begins with her title. Echo Spring sounds like an invigorating destination, possibly even a health spa. It turns out, far less salubriously, to be a brand of bourbon favoured by the messed-up Brick, hero of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Brick wants to forget something, he hits the liquor cabinet. He takes the trip to Echo Spring. 

Laing’s book is a journey too, of a much more salutary kind. Laing is English – she was formerly the Observer’s Deputy Books Editor, and has written a study of Virginia Woolf – but her subjects here are all American. Along with Williams, she considers four prose writers – Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Cheever – and the poet John Berryman ... [read more]