The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing

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The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A journey across the United States to visit the haunts of six famous American 20th century writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and examine the link between creativity and their drinking problems.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 340 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Canongate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781847677945

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Coming from a family with an alcoholic background, Olivia Laing became fascinated by the idea of why and how some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature were written by those with a drink problem. The list soon became a long one – Dylan Thomas, Raymond Chandler, Jack London, Jean Rhys, to name but a few, instantly came to mind. In the spring of 2011 she crossed the Atlantic to take a trip across the USA, from New York City and New Orleans to Chicago and Seattle by hired car and train, in the course of which she took a close look at the link between creativity and alcohol which inspired the work of six authors, namely F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. Taking her title from a character in Williams’s play ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ who says he is taking a trip to echo spring, an euphemism for the liquor cabinet, she travels to the places which were pivotal in their often overlapping lives and work.

The result is an interesting if slightly convoluted journey in search of her heroes. Along the way, she touches on the psychological and medical causes, genetic factors, backgrounds and early life experiences, which result in alcoholism. She finds factors common to all, or most – inadequacy, overbearing mothers and weak fathers, conflict and dissatisfaction with their sexuality, and in most cases death by middle age – including two suicides - with only one, Cheever, succeeding in becoming dry during the last six years of his life. Unfortunately it did not do his writing career much good, as he hardly wrote anything at all during those last six years. (Whether there is a moral to be drawn from that, Ms Laing does not speculate). Williams was the longest-lived, reaching his seventies, though his addictions caught up with him in the end.

Among the places she visits are the rivers of Michigan, where Hemingway used to fish in his younger, more carefree days; the Connecticut River, close to Cheever’s home; Washington Avenue Bridge, Minneapolis, from which Berryman jumped to his death; the streets of New Orleans, the home of Williams for some years; the bars frequented by Fitzgerald; the mid-western university towns where Berryman and Cheever both taught for a while; and Carver’s cabin near Seattle. At one point, deeply touched by what she has learned about Williams and his relationships, she takes herself down to the beach to swim and wash away some of the sadness. She senses how pleasant it might be ‘to let alcohol unhinge you, to take you down into an unreachable, sunken place’ of almost complete tranquillity. At another she attends a rather smoky Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, although she does not seem to draw any obvious conclusions from what she sees or hears there.

Drink, or the lack of it, can be a help or a hindrance. We have already noted that the ageing yet sober Cheever apparently suffered from writer’s block. On the other hand, the well-soused Carver was not only and unsurprisingly a terrible husband and father, but also paranoid, violent and barely able to write at all.

Ms Laing admits she could have chosen one or two women writers, but as she makes clear at the start, to have done so would have been too close to home for her. A more personal and partly autobiographical interlude relates how when she was four years old her parents separated, her father left and her mother’s new companion Diana, moved in. Diana had a severe drink problem and during the next few years it was an often stormy life for her and her sister.

The book is part travelogue, part literary criticism, and part memoir, and altogether it’s an interesting if perhaps slightly odd mix of all three. In the end she contemplates the sense that her subjects, in spite of themselves and their giving in to temptation, had made of their ‘mangled lives’. All of us, she ponders, carry something inside us that can be rejected, and at the end of the day, we can ‘gather up the broken parts’.

It seems to be increasingly the fashion for non-fiction books to dispense with an index and this is no exception, which might slightly lessen its value for any student using this as a study guide to American literature. However there are several appendices. These include a list of the authors and their lifespan dates, of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, fully-referenced notes, and a thorough bibliography. I was a little puzzled by the inclusion of a list of captions for all eight rather fuzzily-reproduced photographs on the last page, and felt they might usefully have been placed alongside the images themselves.

The book has its flaws, but these do not detract from what is a lively and compellingly entertaining read about a sometimes sombre subject.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy:

Hemingway's Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The correspondence of another noted American writer, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin

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Buy The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing at


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