The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking
by Olivia Laing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The UK subtitle of the book is Why Writers Drink. The US edition has On Writers and Drinking instead, an acknowledgement of the impossibility of explaining with any great satisfaction why the six authors in Laing's book — or any others — were alcoholics. We would suspect it if she were to give pat or conclusive answers to such a complex condition. But she comes as close to answering the question as you imagine anyone could, by virtue of her close reading of medical study, scholarship, and most importantly, of the history, letters, and literature of her subjects.
Some have taken issue with how little space she gave one writer over another. I can't agree. Berryman gets extended treatment (so to speak); Williams does as well, and so forth. Naturally, one might wish more information about a favorite writer, but the distribution is fair.
Others have taken issue with her inserting the narrative of her own (literal) journey, describing it as self-indulgent. I understand the criticism: I directed a similar one at Cheryl Strayed's Wild. But here it works, I suspect because her travels are a straightforward context for examination of these writers. Her trip across the US is not some high concept attempt to find herself. It isn't driven by a personal need to fix real or imagined hurt through the tortured lives of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. In fact, it comes across as somewhat dispassionate, at least until the end — a counterpoint to the passionate vapors of the writers themselves. And in that sense it is, I think, not misplaced but an actual necessity. As we cringe at the mind-boggling pain her subjects inflicted on themselves and others we take some comfort and clarity in her own evenness of tone, and the sincerity of her effort.
I have one genuine reservation. A key characteristic of alcoholism, as Laing points out, is denial. It seems odd then that she gives only a cursory account of the role of alcoholism among women in her own life. It is, and she admits it, the reason she writes about men and not women. Against the paradoxically brave self-examination of Berryman's unfinished and largely autobiographical Recovery, her retreat here seems — I hate to say it — evasive. I would have preferred that she had not mentioned it at all, rather than broach it and effectively disappear.
But that's a minor quibble. The last chapter on Raymond Carver, where the Pacific Northwest shakes Laing into extended, achingly beautiful descriptions of river and rock, attests to the wells of redemption all around us and for the worst in us, a long snaking coach ride of goosebumps to the last page.
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