Listener – January 16, 2014
Olivia Laing’s compassionate study of six alcoholic American writers.
“You never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar,” confessed Raymond Carver in an interview published in the Paris Review. At the time, he was a famous writer in a happy relationship with poet Tess Gallagher, whom he met after he left his wife, Maryann, and their two children and had achieved sobriety with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step programme.
As Olivia Laing writes in her discursive but strikingly lucid memoir/travelogue The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, which explores the lives and work of six major American writers and notorious alcoholics, Carver had a lot to overcome: he was born into a poor family, with a father who “lacked the knack of holding his liquor”; he became a father himself at the age of 17, worked at menial jobs and struggled to make ends meet, despairing of ever becoming a successful writer. But the “good” Raymond also had to come to terms with the “bad” Raymond, who was a lousy father and an inconsiderate husband; a maudlin and violent drunk.
Laing’s journey ends in the Pacific northwest town of Port Angeles, where Carver, an avid fisherman, grew up and later found peace. She traces Morse Creek, where he often walked and fished, and at the point where it rushes to the sea she brings his ghost into focus: “Watching water work through rock, you might come to a kind of accommodation with the fact that you’d once smashed your wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man; that you’d hit her with a wine bottle, severing an artery and causing her to lose almost sixty per cent of her blood.”
Laing starts out in New York, where John Cheever began his career, where F Scott Fitzgerald bar-hopped, and she travels, mainly by train, to places such as Key West, where Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams wrote and played, and to the Midwest, where the sometimes brilliant poet John Berryman lectured drunk.
Fitzgerald died in his mid-forties of a heart attack; Hemingway and Berryman, like their fathers, committed suicide; and Williams’s drug-addled death was a suspected homicide. Only Cheever and Carver summoned the humility to “clean up”.
As a recovering alcoholic myself, I was interested in Laing’s emotional motivation for making this journey. When she was four, her parents separated and her mother had a live-in relationship with a warm and vivacious alcoholic woman, which ended violently, and these two almost throwaway sentences speak volumes about co-dependency: “For a long time I stayed just beneath the surface of sleep, and then all of a sudden I dropped into a nightmare, as if I had fallen into one of those deep trout pools in Hemingway’s imaginary rivers. An ex-boyfriend – for what it’s worth also an alcoholic – was about to hang himself.”
The Trip to Echo Spring follows Laing’s much-lauded first book, To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, a meditation on Sussex’s Ouse River, in which Virginia Wolf drowned. She writes like a dream and this compassionate study of six highly gifted but flawed American men of letters showcases her obvious literary talent.
THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: WHY WRITERS DRINK, by Olivia Laing (Canongate, $39.99).
Lindsay Rabbit is a writer and poet whose These Lives I Have Buried was published in Lloyd Jones’ Four Winds Press essay series.