Six Pack

Olivia Laing writes about six great American writers and their complicated relationships with booze.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts.

Illustration by Matthew Roberts

“I am just now dead drunk.” That’s probably not verbatim, but it’s how I remember a line in a letter, a note, really, that the great Scots poet Robert Burns dashed off in a shaky hand. I saw the note a decade ago, maybe more, in a lovely exhibit at the New York Public Library featuring handwritten letters and other ephemera and paratextual flotsam by famous poets. I spent more than an hour walking through the gallery, lingering over each specimen displayed in each vitrine, charmed by all of it.

And now I remember nothing save that wee note of Burns’. It’s a little embarrassing that among all the objects I saw that day, the only one that sticks is the one about being drunk. I wasn’t drunk when I saw the exhibit, but my memories of it feel not unlike those one might try to patch together and put in order after a bender: hazy, inchoate, highly selective. It’s not liquor that has prevented me from remembering more; it’s that my interest in a poet’s engagement with liquor has overshadowed all else. It bothers me that now I can recall just that one item from that show, that single letter, which rises up in my memory as a thing not so different from a text message one college sophomore might send to another: Dude, I am SO fucked up.

It bothers me, but I know I’m not alone here: I think many of us want it both ways when it comes to writers, perhaps when it comes to artists of all kinds. We want them to be different, set apart, special. At the same time, we also want them to sound like us—especially us at our weakest, our most fragile, our most fucked up.

That there’s a substantial cross-cultural roster of writers who readily indulge us in this dual impulse seems obvious, but now we have a fine writer who has taken it upon herself to consider the relationship between writers and alcoholism with care and delicacy. In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing, a British woman, takes as her subjects six American men, six iconic writers, six alcoholics: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Among them there are two suicides. There are two who ultimately got sober. There are grimly unhappy childhoods. The book is a hybrid: It’s memoir. It’s biography. It’s literary criticism. And it’s structured as a travelogue, with its author traveling the United States to position herself precisely in many of the places that shaped her subjects.

I was moved by, and learned much from, Laing’s engagement with each of these authors—dazzled by the fine, deft way in which she weaves together their individual biographies and creative output, and the way in which she shows how each subject interacts (in real life or thematically) with each other. She alerted me to a Cheever I’d not considered before, one “stranger and more subversive than his increasingly Waspy scenery suggests,” and sent me back to “The Swimmer,” a story I’d not read in decades.  Among her subjects, it is Carver whose work I know best, but, here, too, a reader benefits from Laing’s fresh assay, especially with respect to his often overlooked and underrated poetry. She has just the right phrase to characterize his late poems—“wide-open”—and her recounting of a visit to his graveside is among the book’s most affecting portions. Carver claimed to be an atheist, she reminds us, while illuminating how pervasive faith is in his writing, in quiet ways before he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and more explicitly after.

But Laing is at her most brilliant on Berryman. Her close reading of a portion of his “Dream Song 311” is thrilling, both raw and fully felt: “The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation … with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.” Again, she sent me back to my bookshelves to pull out something wonderful that I’d let languish there too long.

Her book’s evocative title comes from Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made an impression on Laing when she first read it as a teen. It was, she writes, “the first time I found the behavior I’d grown up amid not only named and delineated but actively confronted.” And one scene in particular stuck with her:

Brick, the drunkard, has been summoned by his father. Big Daddy is on a talking jag and after a while Brick asks for his crutch. “Where you goin’?” Big Daddy asks, and Brick replies, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Physically, Echo Spring is nothing more than a nickname for a liquor cabinet … Symbolically, though, it refers to something different: perhaps the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.

Author Olivia Laing.
Author Olivia Laing

Photo courtesy Jonathan Ring

It’s so effective as a title and as a euphemism, this trip to Echo Spring. The book’s subtitle (for the American edition, anyway)—On Writers and Drinking—is less apt. Laing is dealing here with some seriously hard cases, and a more fitting subtitle would be On Writers and Alcoholism. Throughout, the author’s broader claims about drinking and the discourse of drinking are less persuasive than her rich, individual readings of these writers, less elegant than her descriptions of cityscapes and the natural world, less compelling than her open-hearted reflections on the place of drinking in her own life and in her own family. We learn in a few brisk but harrowing pages that her mother’s partner, Diana, was an alcoholic quite capable of creating terror in the household: “What I remember is waking to the sound of screaming. Each time, it was like witnessing a possession, like watching someone overtaken by an evil spirit. Diana’s voice would thicken and become almost inhuman.”

Despite having had to endure such a frightening extreme, and despite demonstrating that she knows the medical literature of alcoholism well, at many moments Laing does not seem willing to believe that there’s any real distinction to be made between a drinker and an alcoholic, as though the former must inevitably morph or merge into the latter, as they seamlessly do here:

The desire to drink, and the repercussions it has on the drinker’s physical, emotional and social selves, are buried beneath excuses, elisions and flat-out lies. An alcoholic might be understood in fact to live two lives, one concealed beneath the other.

When I consider the alcoholics I’ve known best, this rings true. But it is not true of the drinker who stops into his or her local a few times a week for a couple of pints, who has nothing to excuse, elide, lie about, or conceal.

“People don’t like to talk about alcohol,” Laing writes. “They don’t like to think about it, except in the most superficial of ways. They don’t like to examine the damage it does and I don’t blame them.” These assertions feel remote and almost abstract, where elsewhere Laing’s tone is so intimate and amiable. I thought of writers, like Pete Hamill and Caroline Knapp, who scrutinized with eloquence and generous self-exposure the damage alcohol did them. I guess that what Laing means by “the most superficial of ways” is the pervasive chatter about the most rarefied and sometimes ridiculous precincts of cocktail culture, the dead-earnest deconstructions of daiquiris and dry martinis, the academic interest in the right ice, the right glass, the right garnish, etc. etc. As someone often designated a “drink writer,” I certainly know how silly all of this can be. But in ways that are sometimes profound and sometimes precious, plenty of people like to talk about alcohol, think about alcohol, and write about alcohol, maybe more than ever.

A year ago, I published a memoir called Drinking With Men, about finding community in the largely male world of bar regulars. In conversations after it came out, one question was asked of me more than any other, often with a presumptuously cozy, come-on-you-can-tell-me tone: Are you an alcoholic? I knew the question would come up, and I didn’t mind. But it didn’t take long to figure out that no matter how many times I answered “No,” some people would never believe me—and would take my “no” as a sure sign of denial, as proof of what they already knew.

Early in the book, Laing is moved “close to tears” by the testimony she hears at an AA meeting she attends in the name of research; near the end, she cries at Carver’s graveside. Her deep reserves of fellow feeling and tenderness are evident through The Trip to Echo Spring, extended to each writer she examines. Laing’s writing is beautiful, her insights frequently surprising and powerful. The book’s greatest virtue, however, is that it positively swells with empathy. As I read The Trip to Echo Spring, I sometimes imagined myself as one of the fellow passengers Laing encounters on her journey, whose conversations (with Laing herself, and those Laing overhears) pepper the narrative. If she and I had met on a train, I doubt she would’ve leaned in close and asked me point blank: Are you an alcoholic? But I wonder if she’d think so; if I couldn’t just be someone who likes a pint of stout and a glass of whiskey, someone who feels at home in a corner bar. I wonder if, to Laing’s thinking, I’d have to be an alcoholic. I suspect I might feel judged, but judged with kindness.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. Picador.

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