Olivia Laing’s book opens with a vivid anecdote about two men, both visiting lecturers at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One is a well-established author with many accolades under his belt, the other soon will be. Both of them are in deep trouble: they’re on their way to the liquor store – it’s nine o’clock in the morning and they’re already drunk. The writers are John Cheever and Raymond Carver, two of the six authors through whom Laing chooses to explore the relationship between alcohol and writing. The other four are Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. In her introduction Laing explains that it’s something about which she’s long been curious but that she also has a more personal interest – she grew up in family where alcohol was a problem.
Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, biographies and the writers’ work, Laing examines their problems with drink in forensic detail. She decides that the best way to make sense of her extensive research is to take a trip around the States, following in her subjects’ footsteps. She travels to New York, New Orleans and Key West, then to Port Angeles in the far North West and it is in the passages describing her journey that her own writing sings out. Some of her descriptions of the landscape she travels through are quite lovely, and her observations of fellow passengers are sometimes funny, always astute. She visits a therapist, goes to an AA meeting and delves through medical analyses of alcoholism, weaving her experiences into the lives of her subjects and quoting from their writing extensively. It’s an impressive piece of work written with empathy and insight but I have to confess that towards the end I found myself skipping through some chapters, particularly after reading about John Berryman whose struggles with drink are particularly bleak. The final chapter holds out some hope – Laing begins it by telling us that her mother’s partner, now friend rather than lover, has been sober for twenty-three years and that both Cheever and Carver won their battles, much-needed good news after the two suicides (Hemingway and Berryman), string of broken marriages, ill-health and breakdowns that have come before.
And the title? It’s a reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which one of the characters says ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring’, a nickname for the liquor cabinet named after a brand of bourbon. Laing interprets it as ‘the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.’ Well worth a read but not for the faint-hearted.