Write drunk, edit sober

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, by Olivia Laing, Canongate, RRP£20, 284 pages

“A man that drinks,” wrote Tennessee Williams, “is two people, one grabbing the bottle, the other fighting him off it.” In his case, though, the other man was more likely to be writing it all down.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing travels across America to find out “why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature”. The writers she has chosen – Williams, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver – offer some insights themselves. Fitzgerald called alcohol an “escape” that “heightens my emotions and I put it in a story”; Hemingway described it as the “only mechanical relief” for modern life’s “mechanical oppression”; while Berryman called it the “need, need, need” that sent a man to pieces. But then “the pieces sat up and wrote”.

Laing’s travels take her from Cheever’s New York to Carver’s Port Angeles, via Key West (Hemingway), New Orleans (Williams) and St Paul (Berryman). But the real journey, the trip to “Echo Spring” (Brick’s name for the liquor cabinet in Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), is the one she takes through their lives and work.

Laing is interested in sources: of inspiration and self as well as records and artefacts. Her first book, To the River (2011), a history of the river Ouse, also took the form of a journey – a walk from source to sea, by way of Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Grahame and the Battle of Lewes. Laing’s writing makes one think of rivers. Her books follow a meandering course and carry their many allusions lightly. She’s open too about their sources: the alcoholism she witnessed as a child and the crises that prompted To the River.

Her six writers share more than just booze and literature. They have echoes of Laing’s own “obsessive hydrophilia”; loving, and writing about rivers and swimming pools and oceans. Water recurs as a motif of wonder and renewal not so far removed from alcohol. When Carver wrote about rivers – “I love them the way some men love horses/ or glamorous women” – he could just as easily have been talking about booze.

Drinking brought them together – Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris cafés; Carver and Cheever on whiskey runs in Iowa – but inevitably it also destroyed relationships. After Fitzgerald wrote about his alcohol-induced breakdown, Hemingway accused him of cowardice. They were all, characteristically, in denial. Does wine count as alcohol? Not according to Hemingway. Fitzgerald didn’t count beer. It’s hardly surprising that only Cheever and Carver managed to stay dry in their final years.

The reasons why writers drink are the same as for anyone else. As Cheever said, it “bridged the abyss”. Alcohol supplied a fantasy: of class emancipation, of joy, of collectedness, of confidence. But this cure quickly became indistinguishable from the cause. Williams’s earliest inebriations accompanied “the most nearly psychotic crisis” of his youth. His disastrous first drink – a crème de menthe on a turbulent Atlantic crossing – didn’t endear him to the stuff (or stay inside him long) but by the time he left Paris a few weeks later he had discovered a taste for champagne – and a terrifying fear of “the process of thought”. He was excruciatingly shy, and alcohol relieved that, as it did for Cheever at New York parties, and for Berryman before lectures.

At its best, Laing’s prose is lucid and exuberant. She rejects the opportunities for humour, although some of the stories are very funny indeed; and traces rather than interrogates her subjects. She knows them intimately and the result is a thoughtful study, part literary biography, part travel memoir. And if the question of why writers drink sometimes slips into the background, it hardly matters: the journey is more interesting than arriving at the source.

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