'The Trip to Echo Springs'

'The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking'
By Olivia Laing
Picador

Like an opinionated drunk, a book about opinionated drunks can't help but teeter on the edge of self-satire. The soused writer and his tumbler are, after all, as hard to separate as the creative process and mythmaking. But Olivia Laing's deeply personal investigation into the American literary establishment's struggle with CH3CH2OH never fails to glorify inebriation. Her lauded subjects – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Tennessee Williams – were, after all, more than drinkers. They were ugly drunks.

Rather than serving up the idea of the alcohol-dependent writer – hard-earned insight, bouts of deep empathy, a dash of stubble – Laing gives life to men whose vice was shared and lives and tastes were not. She travels from New Orleans, where Williams gulped gin fizzes, to Minneapolis, where Berryman took a big swig of river, wandering through sanitariums, the mesolimbic system, and houses that have become memorials to genius and its discontents. Rather than tripping toward hagiography, she steadies herself – as befits a former 'Observer' books editor – with perfectly chosen quotes that humanize authors and serve as reminders of the electricity their words once carried. Between observations about her family's struggles with booze, she drops this passage from Hemingway's 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro':"He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions."

The question at the core of the book – how has liquor affected literature itself? – is both unanswerable and thoroughly answered. Alcohol has unusual properties. It helped these men burn bright before extinguishing them under great waves of despair. Laing picks through the letters, essays, and memories that washed up afterward.