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".
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