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Book review: The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, By Olivia Laing

This literary quest serves a cocktail to savour. But what's left to take away at closing time?

Olivia Laing's first book, To The River, was called both "erudite and wacky", its author acclaimed for the beauty of her prose and compared to WG Sebald and Richard Mabey. It was certainly an idiosyncratic work – a homage to the Sussex Ouse and to Virginia Woolf who walked into it to an untimely death in 1941. Laing is evidently fascinated by rivers, and in The Trip to Echo Spring she is following not one but several - this time rivers of alcohol, hoping to discover their effects on certain writers and their creations.

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Writing her previous book was, she said, a way of coping with the loss of a job (as a deputy literary editor) and a broken relationship (he wouldn't leave Yorkshire; she couldn't abandon Sussex). Her new book is also a personal quest, this time an attempt to come to terms with "an alcoholic family background" - "a house under the rule of alcohol" and its continuing effects.

Declaring that "There are some things you cannot study at home," she takes off for New York, intending to chart the drinking lives of six writers: John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. From New York, she criss-crosses America by train - down to New Orleans (Williams country), Miami and Key West (Hemingway), then snaking north to wintry Seattle, where Raymond Carver spent his last years. (Echo Spring, incidentally, is the name of a Kentucky Bourbon favoured by the alcoholic Brick Pollitt in Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)

Laing is a fine and stylish travel writer, with a sharp eye for passing detail and an acute ear for oddly amusing conversations. But she is not that easy to classify. At times she leaves the biographical trail, and her smoothly-flowing prose, tuned to the landscape and consciousness of her writers, plunges off into the "science" of addiction.

In New York she attends an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, visits the Smithers Alcohol Treatment and Trainin Center, where Cheever and Truman Capote dried out, interviews a psychiatrist and consults a medical directory. She quickly acquires the lingo, and refers knowingly to "pleasure-rewarding pathways" and "the mesolimbic system".

She returns to poetry with a colourful excursion into Manhattan's Lower East Side, where her antennae detect literary associations. She spots the bridge where Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel key, and recalls Williams's comments on "terrifying New York". After Acapulco, St Louis and New Orleans, settings of The Night of the Iguana, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, she's ready to push on.

The train journey south follows the Mississippi where she notes "a heron capped with bright blue feathers", "beehives in the forest, grazing horses, red earth", the wind "driving the dust in chutes". As the "light pulsed, electric", she beautifully captures the dusk. "Big clouds were gathering, and there was a yellowish cast to the west, the colour of old piano keys, old teeth." It strikes a sad and slightly menacing note, appropriate to the melancholic journey.

In New Orleans she attends a Tennessee Williams Scholars' Conference. Again her narrative of travel and stormy encounters with alcohol gives way to a scholarly/medical/sociological paper on the relationship between Williams's addiction and his art. A key question underlying Laing's pilgrimage is whether alcohol aids inspiration or destroys it. She finds answers of sorts – it inspires up to a point, then, at different rates, it destroys. But the more general causes of alcoholism remain uncertain (a genetic, social or psychological condition, or a combination of all three?). Laing, perhaps understandably, favours the theory that a damaging early childhood constitutes the prime cause.

She looks at the techniques alcoholics adopt to obscure their addiction – denial, displacement, and self-deception, for example – citing Williams's Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire; Fitzgerald's Dick Diver in Tender is the Night, and Hemingway in A Moveable Feast as exemplifying cases.

Cleverly, Laing dips seamlessly in and out of the lives of her subjects, noting their associations with places. She is able to access their thoughts about liquor and its effects through their own accounts - sometimes boastful like Hemingway, sometimes pathetic like Berryman, who left an unfinished novel about it, while Cheever confided his thoughts to a journal. Fitzgerald confessed to his addiction and its destructive consequences in The Crack-up, prompting Hemingway to insert a contemptuous reference to him in the magazine version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Laing, the eager literary tourist, is intensely alert to the points at which her writers' paths intersected – the King Cole bar at the St Regis on 55th Street where the opening night party for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was held and John Cheever was a frequent drinker; St Paul, the town where Berryman taught and Fitzgerald was born; Key West, where Hemingway and Williams met for their only encounter. She has no wish to be seen as a ghost-hunter. Finding the hotel room in which Williams died gone, she writes, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I am interested in absences, and the fact that the room had ceased to exist pleased me." Nevertheless, the shades of her writers do haunt her book and their puzzling addiction interests her deeply.

The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape – to Shakespeare, Chekhov, Poe, Hart Crane, Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Laurie Lee, and even The Wind in the Willows. Whether, on her occasional plunges into the depths of psychosocial research, she finds clear water – explanations to illuminate her search - the reader will have to judge, but when poetry gives way to scientific jargon inevitably there is a sense of loss. Perhaps I'm missing something, and this is Laing's subtle (or "erudite and wacky") way of mimicking the alcoholic experience – the warm pleasures of intoxication overtaken by the cold discomfort of withdrawal.

Gordon Bowker's 'James Joyce: a biography' is published by Phoenix