A romanticism has attached itself to many writers who drank: They’ve had bars named after them, and there’s a sense that their artistic gifts may somehow have been tied to their weakness for alcohol.
As Olivia Laing explains in this sharp and engaging book — part literary criticism, part travelogue, part memoir — many such authors contributed to this mythology themselves. John Cheever, one of the six American writers (and alcoholics) whose careers Laing considers, once wrote: “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.”
However, Laing, a British writer and critic, has little patience for the idea that genius can be found at the bottom of a bottle. To her reading of things, the truth of writerly addiction is the truth of most addiction and is reflected in something Raymond Carver once said: “I made a wasteland out of everything I touched.”
Another writer might have lingered over the grisly details of drunkenness in the lives of her subjects — who also include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and the poet John Berryman. There is certainly plenty to choose from: Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, Cheever and Carver drinking their way through a semester teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — any number of social humiliations, professional failures, chronic illnesses, and frequent hospitalizations.
Instead, as if to defuse whatever grim appeal those stories might hold, Laing focuses on their writing, what she identifies as “the sense they’d made of their mangled lives.” Not all their words are equally enlightening. Like many addicts, these writers were untrustworthy narrators of their stories, and therefore the explanations they gave for their drinking in interviews, letters, and even diary entries should, Laing argues, be met with some suspicion.
Of Williams, who in later years would profess to sobriety in moments during which he was clearly intoxicated, she puts it best, writing that he was “not an entirely reliable witness to the traffic of his own life.”
Yet in art — in fiction — there might be truth. Laing is a sharp and sympathetic reader, offering succinct praise of the best of these writers’ works. She elegantly evokes the “irony and sheer enchantment” of Cheever’s short stories and the “mixed messages of love and desperation” in Berryman’s poems. And she proves herself to be an estimable stylist in her own right. Raymond Carver’s poems, are, Laing writes, “slippery and pristine,” like fish.
The book’s title comes from Williams’s play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ in which the alcoholic character Brick refers to pouring a drink as “takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.”
This connects to Laing’s trip around the country, a “topographical map of alcoholism’’ around which the book is organized. Her tour, mostly by train, takes her from New York to Williams’s New Orleans and Hemingway’s Key West, then across country to Carver’s Washington state, with stops along the way at literary landmarks.
Part of her motivation for the trip, and the book, is personal: Several years of her childhood were spent with an alcoholic adult.
Yet Laing’s own story — and her lyrical, haunted memories — feel rather slight set against the other lives she chronicles. And, although she nicely captures the joys of overland travel by rail, her trip offers little insight into the stories of her subjects and feels less like a journey than an imposed narrative framework.
Nonetheless, these detours do not detract much from the book’s power as a work of criticism. Laing’s stern refusal to sentimentalize drinking makes us marvel all the more at the great work that these authors were able to share with the world, despite, rather than because of, their crippling addictions.
“That’s what alcoholism does to a writer,” she writes. “You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’re yet to finish.”Ian Crouch writes about books and culture for newyorker.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.