Reading “The Sun Also Rises” at age twelve, I counted the cocktails and the beers and the absinthes and realized Hemingway had a problem. Around that same age, Olivia Laing woke up to her mother’s alcoholic partner screaming and shortly found herself barricaded with the rest of her family in a bedroom. Like the rest of the world, I turned my experience into a punch line involving writers and alcohol, but Laing alchemized her brush with darkness into a book. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is an examination of some of America’s best writers and notorious alcoholics, a subject that ordinarily exemplifies cliché. But Laing’s dazzling prose and fervent dedication banish the vultures of cliché from circling in a work of literary analysis that should thrill the curious amateur and delight the picky scholar.
Take the title, from a line from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where Brick refers to a liquor cabinet and its contents. Laing dissects all the levels on which “the trip to echo spring” works as a metaphor, but the sheer fact that she highlights it as a metaphor already bodes well for the book’s originality, even if the subjects are familiar ones. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver and Berryman (Laing apologizes for not including women writers, feeling that would hit a little close to home) are the subjects of a meandering pilgrimage the British writer takes through America to see their places of inspiration: New York, New Orleans, Key West, Chicago, Washington State. It’s a journey only the keenest of fans would take, the sheer stretch of land insurmountable. And with the writers chosen, the catalogue might as well be too. Laing, though, picks the works of her muses delicately. Williams’ “Clothes for A Summer Hotel” is equally important as Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and the Nick Adams stories and Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” It is not just what they say about the men who wrote them as they filled up their glasses, but what Laing reverberates to in them. She writes of sifting through letters, of seeing the one place in Hemingway’s oeuvre where he scrawled his own name instead of Nick’s.
The harmony Laing strikes between travel writer and critic is remarkable, connecting with the reader through the snippets she offers of her journey. Throughout, the prose echoes that of the masters she inspects, no matter if it’s about Williams’ long-term relationship with Frank Merlo, or this snippet of scene from an Amtrak window near Baltimore: “By the time we reached Baltimore the sun was very low in the sky. There were mountains of shale and aggregate and corrugated iron warehouses with burned and smoke-stained panels. We shuddered by a line of derelict row houses, the bricks caved in by teeth.” Each writer Laing profiles had a thing to do with those sentences.
Some quibbles, very minor. Laing’s own back story seems poised, by her own doing, to play a far greater role than it ever plays in the text. The analysis and sheer luster of the prose carry the book without the added weight of her history. But perhaps the history needs to be there as a justification for the journey, the hammer striking the nail. The same could be said for her interview with an alcoholism specialist about the science behind the disease and her visit to an AA meeting. If longer, those inclusions would threaten to veer the book toward something it is not. As it is, it’s very hard to say what exactly “The Trip to Echo Spring” is as a book (it reminds me a bit of Kate Zambreno’s “Heroines,” if that’s any help). A series of biographical vignettes, a memoir, an investigation? At its finest, isn’t literary analysis all of these things? (Liz Baudler)
“The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking”
By Olivia Laing
Picador, 352 pages, $26