The Trip to Echo Spring – why writers drink – by Olivia Laing

This is a very good and enjoyable book, covering a lot of fascinating detail about the lives of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, F Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. As is probably apparent from the title of the book, what these writers had in common, apart from being giants of the modern literary scene not only in the US but internationally, was that they were alcoholics.

I have long been fascinated by the mythology of drinking that surrounds people like Hemingway. In particular, the idea that anyone could do anything so demanding and difficult as writing, when totally pissed. It turns out, perhaps not unexpectedly but a bit disappointingly nonetheless, that Hemingway didn’t actually write that lovely crystalline prose when pissed but in the periods of sobriety that interrrupted his drinking life.

Berryman, on the other hand, wrote his best poems, it seems, when severely drunk. And Raymond Carver wrote one or two of his finest stories during the lowest ebb of his chaotic and desperate life as an alcoholic, including ‘Will you please be quiet, please?’. But, as the book nicely shows, his best work came when he was dry, in that short interval between his drying out and his death.

I was, I suppose, hoping to understand how great art can be produced while drunk. This question arises frequently in relation to jazz musicians, I think, as well. There is a great film called ‘Crazy Heart’, which stars Jeff Bridges as a washed up country and western singer who tries to perform while drunk and an alcoholic, and he fails, embarrassingly. But plenty of jazz and rock has been performed by drunk people and it is so tempting to think that booze has inspirational qualities that, in the right mix and mood, can produce transcendental work. I am sceptical, I am afraid. Maybe a couple of drinks can loosen things up; but producing great writing or music while unable to stand up? I don’t think so.

This book is part autobiography. The author takes us with her as she researches it, visiting New Orleans and the Florida Keys, summoning up the environments in which these writers worked. She mentions her own experience of alcoholics, which sound very messy, as alcoholics are destructive of other people’s lives. But it is not intrusive and she gets the balance right.

The book is very clear about the terrible damage done by alcoholism – to health, to relationships and, possibly , to art. But it is also clear that each of these writers were alcoholic in their own way, reflecting their personalities. Berryman manic, flat out crazy; Williams fighting his internal demons; and Cheever always seeking to live a respectable life, whatever awful places his drinking took him to.

This is an excellent book, though it doesn’t offer any simplistic or generalised answers to the question posed in the title. Incidentally, the ‘trip to Echo Spring’ refers to the brand of whisky drunk by Brick in Williams’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. He takes a ‘trip’ when he goes to get a drink. Which he does often, as he is an alcoholic.


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