Canongate £20

Review: The Trip to Echo Spring - Why Writer's Drink, By Olivia Laing

Let's drink to inspiration in the bottom of a glass

Near the height of his powers, Raymond Carver was, says Olivia Laing in this enthralling travelogue-cum-memoir, "unreliable, paranoid and violent and, as he approached the nadir of his drinking … could barely write at all". Turns out he was also an appalling husband and a neglectful, resentful father. And there's worse. That revered unadorned Carver style likely resulted from alcohol's obliteration of his faculty for recall.

At the end of her journey in contemplation of Echo Spring – the title taken from a line in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Laing and her mother arrive in Port Angeles, the Pacific north-western town where Carver finally found quiet salvation. Her choice of travelling companion for this leg of the journey is significant. When she was four, her parents separated and her mother met a woman, Diana. "Warm, vivacious, and funny" Diana moved in. She was an alcoholic. It is the violent, drink-fuelled conclusion to the relationship which she and her mother movingly relive as they motor along on Carver's trail.

This early experience of alcoholism sends Laing forth on an odyssey to discover why writers drink. Specifically, why six male American writers – F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Carver – did so. She maps their alcoholism, from the New York bar room hang-outs of Fitzgerald, and the New Orleans of Williams's youth; to Key West, haunt of Hemingway; and to the Mid-Western university towns where Cheever, Berryman, and Cheever tried to hold down both whisky and teaching jobs. Two of the six would later commit suicide. None made old bones.

And yet, how they wrote! Given his later decline, one could rue the day that a beautiful young man, still then named Tom Williams, took his first sip of crème de menthe on a transatlantic voyage with his clergyman grandfather. But without that baptism we would have had neither Cat, nor the Bourbon-downing Brick, who falls in love "with Echo Spring". Nor perhaps any of the wonderful things these fine writers wrote; "the sense they'd made of their mangled lives" as Laing puts it. She herself is no abstainer when it comes to intoxicating prose. Of cocktail hour in Manhattan she writes liquidly: "On its way to darkness, the sky had turned an astonishing, deepening blue, flooding with colour as abruptly as if someone had opened a sluice".

Why do writers drink? With these six, you can put it down variously to their unhappy childhoods, their overbearing mother figures, their uncertain sexualities. Or perhaps to the sheer drudgeries of life. All these reasons tilt at the truth. But Laing nails it when she quotes Saul Bellow: "He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart". And then there's the moment at the end of Laing's trip, when reading the testimonies of kindred drinkers in the visitor's book at Carver's grave reduces her to tears. Faith, she decides, is the key to recovering. And having someone who cares that you do so.

Laing makes us care about these writers' sufferings, the self-wreaked ravages on vital organs, the inexorable blackings-out of genius. But she makes us cherish even more what they left behind: literature soaked with "the power to map the more difficult regions of human experience".

 

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high