The Trip to Echo Spring – Olivia Laing

Laing’s book begins with an epigraph from the Handbook of Medical Psychiatry:

When alcoholics do drink, most eventually become intoxicated, and it is this recurrent intoxication that eventually brings their lives down in ruins…Yet despite these consequences the alcoholic continues to drink…Previously upstanding individuals may find themselves lying, cheating, stealing, and engaging in all manner of deceit to protect or cover up their drinking…Many alcoholics appear quite grandiose, yet on closer inspection one sees that their self-esteem has slipped away from them.

In The Trip to Echo Spring (a title taken from a line Brick says in the Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Laing examines the lives of six American male writers and alcoholics – John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. What drove them to drink and how did it affect their writing?

Laing decides to do this while travelling through America herself, visiting places important to these writers – …through New York, New Orleans and Key West, and then north-west, via St. Paul…and on to the rivers and creeks of Port Angeles…. She uses the connections between the places and the people to provide a loose structure to her work. I say loose because the book meanders from the writers and their relationships to key pieces of their work to what it means to be an alcoholic to Laing’s journey to Laing’s own family background and the affect alcoholism had on them. Some readers will dislike this structure, I’m sure, but  (particularly as a fan of Sebald) it worked wonderfully for me. Rather than investigate an area or a writer wholly in one section, you get pieces of information like this:

In 1980, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders dropped the term ‘alcoholism’ entirely, replacing it with two interrelated disorders: alcohol abuse (defined as ‘repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences’) and alcohol dependence (defined as ‘alcohol abuse combined with tolerance, withdrawl and an uncontrollable drive to drink’).

alongside descriptions like this:

The city impressed itself on me by way of a repeating currency of images, a coinage of yellow cabs and fire escapes, brownstones hung with wreaths of conifer and ornamental cabbage tied up with tartan ribbon. Delis stocked with smoked pigs’ legs and wheels of giant cheese. Plums and mangoes stacked in crates. Fish on ice, heaped in delicate, slippery piles of coral, silver, flint and grey.

which makes The Trip to Echo Spring a thoroughly absorbing read. But, be warned, this book comes with two adverse side effects: one, the descriptions of the effect that even the smallest amount of alcohol has on your body will put you off drinking (temporarily, at least) and two, Laing’s critiques of the six writers’ work will have you rushing to buy all the ones you don’t already own.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.