The Trip to Echo Spring; on writers and drinking by Olivia Laing

In Olivia Laing’s newest book, The Trip to Echo Spring, the writer chooses to investigate “why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She takes us through a trip that weaves between six writers of 20th century American literature and her own ghosts of growing up in a home where alcoholism played a strange and erratic part.

Laing has chosen literary lions F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver, whose drinking habits are as well-known as their canonical works. The book explores the many aspects of their lives, which seem to echo with each other. Their upbringings and domestic lives could easily be swapped and no one would know the immediate difference. At the beginning, Laing writes about her decision,

Most of this six — or saw themselves as having — that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.

Along with investigating these six writers, Laing details a train journey she takes throughout the continental United States, leading her to the hometowns or adopted way stations of the writers. Her intent is to explore how these men experienced and thought about the disease and their relationship to alcohol.

Dealing with childhood experiences of growing up with an alcoholic in the household, it seems only natural that the author would find momentum in taking on such a hefty and well-documented theme: writers and alcohol…and especially American writers and alcohol.

The book begins quite elegantly with Laing outlining her plan and hopeful desires. Her words and sentences lull forward giving the reader a sense of untrustworthy calm when describing clearly troubling past memories. Like the authors she’s chosen, Olivia Laing’s own writing is so effected by alcohol, albeit, not her own disease. These clipped memories envelop the reader and a favorite moment is when Laing writes that she only recently began thinking about the past,

For years, I’d steered well clear of the period in which alcohol seeped its way into my childhood, beneath the doors and around the seams of windows, a slow, contaminating flood.

Unfortunately, she has chosen six authors that so many people are aware of, both of their writing and their lives. No new information was really presented. Although, I did find myself more engrossed with the portion about the poet John Berryman. I wondered if this was because I knew the least about him, or was it because his life was described somewhat differently? His troubles, at times, stuck out in the book, whether it be his drunken college instruction or his tendency to fall down all of the time. However, these are more anecdotes and the way alcohol effected his writing is similar to the other five.

As the book progresses, we regrettably move further away from Laing’s initial trip and closer to a regurgitation of well-known facts culled from biographies and diaries, although, still retaining the notion that alcoholism is rampant in the authors’ writings. Echo Spring was enjoyable to an extent. However, Laing’s beautiful writing that swam around the opening pages began to drop-off and the idea behind her train journey a baffling one beyond getting a publisher to pay for a trip to Key West. I liked her idea of travelling to these birth places and homes, but the reflection was lacking.

Questions circled around my mind as I read on. Was this book, perhaps, meant for an audience not familiar with 20th century American writers? Laing writes that she was most interested in these six because their lives mirror each other, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to investigate writers who alcoholic lives are less known to us? This is her book, of course, but without new information presented, my mind wandered to Marguerite Duras or Patricia Highsmith, just as two examples.

The Trip to Echo Spring was a personal endeavor that felt less personal as the pages went by. Laing’s writing is top-notch but the lovely prose that populated the beginning chapters began to fall away as the reflections became more direct excerpts from outside works than to Laing’s own train journey and bits of her childhood experiences. She was strongest writing about these latter moments than offering up well-known information about these flawed great American writers.

*photos from Wikipedia.org and The Guardian

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2 comments

  1. Completely with you on your review although I haven’t (nor in all honesty be likely to) read the book as I’m tired of the heroic/tragic male battle with the bottle story. I’m much more interested in the female side— I think writers like Dumas and Highsmith (what about Shirley Jackson?) were deeply fascinating people and would love to know their “story” in depth. Odd that she didn’t strike a gender balance.

    1. Yes, Shirley Jackson is extremely fascinating and someone should do a book investigating her life post-haste.

      I see Laing’s idea of finding writers whose lives are very similar but in this sense, I felt that it was “been there, done that.” Even though it is about American writers, I think an American audience might have a hard time finding a connection or fascination with it, just because we are so aware of it. Her own fascination wasn’t very illuminating and she says that she admires these men’s works (which was clear), but that didn’t really add much.

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