Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly described Echo Spring as a fictitious brand of bourbon. It is an actual brand. This version has been corrected.
Olivia Laing takes the title for this book about writers and booze from a scene in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the play by Tennessee Williams. Brick, the alcoholic former football star (Ben Gazzara on Broadway in 1955, Paul Newman in the 1958 movie), is confronted by his father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives in both), and scaldingly criticized by him. Brick responds by turning his back and walking away. “Where you goin’?” Big Daddy asks, to which Brick replies, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.”
Echo Spring is the brand of bourbon that Brick drinks, and he drinks it by the gallon. For Laing, who apparently has never met a pop-psychological argument she doesn’t love, it’s far more than that: “Symbolically. . . it refers to something quite different: perhaps to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.” Or, as Laing writes a hundred pages later: “Brick . . . has, as his wife Maggie puts it, ‘fallen in love with Echo Spring’. . . . His energy is directed exclusively towards his own personal mission, which is to drink enough Echo Spring to bring on the click: the moment when all the agitating noise in his head goes blessedly to silence.”
Well, there’s no question that alcohol was a big problem for a great many 20th-century writers or that Williams, Brick’s creator, knew exactly whereof he wrote. Williams, a world-class sot, is one of six men about whom Laing writes in “The Trip to Echo Spring,” the others being Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. As she implicitly acknowledges early on, her subjects just as easily could have been Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote, Hart Crane, Jack London and Elizabeth Bishop. For that matter, the list could have included Ring Lardner and Frederick Exley, about whom in the distant past I wrote biographies, tasks that gave me what television announcers used to call up-close-and-personal exposure to the interaction of writing and booze, exposure that left me with the understanding that the subject does not lend itself to easy explanations.
At one level Laing seems to understand this, but at another she simply cannot resist playing a combination of quack doctor, pseudo-scientific researcher and pop psychologist. A British journalist in her mid-30s, she has chosen an American subject — fine, she’s entitled — but she completely fails to explore its American roots. She tells us (among many other things) that alcoholic writers often come from unhappy childhoods and that “the dream of letting go into water is prevalent in the work of alcoholic writers,” whatever one cares to read into that, but inasmuch as it’s commonly understood that the problem is in some ways peculiarly American, it’s both odd and irritating that she leaves this side of her subject alone.
Why she chose only male writers is a mystery: Dorothy Parker, Jean Stafford and Caroline Gordon certainly would have qualified for inclusion, to name only three, as for that matter would any number of Brits and Irish — James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Dylan Thomas, Kingsley Amis; indeed, the Brits are a more spectacularly alcoholic breed than we are, as Sarah Lyall is at pains to point out in her deliciously irreverent “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British” (2008). But then the famously alcoholic American male writers of the 20th century are to all intents and purposes a cliché, so no one should be surprised that with stunning lack of imagination Laing chose to focus on them, with special and predictable emphasis on the two most famous (or notorious) of them all, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
She doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about them or any of her other subjects. She doesn’t really come to terms with Prohibition, though it is surely no coincidence that the rise of literary alcoholism began just as the legal spigot was turned off and the illegal one was opened wide. Rather than leading Americans away from drink, Prohibition led them toward it — especially those in literary circles. Whereas previously drinking was done in taverns, now it was done in chic, private-admission clubs and similar, if less sophisticated, watering places, where the sheer illegality of it gave drinking a cachet it never before had. It was almost as though poor Fitzgerald, the bard of the Jazz Age, felt obliged to drink to excess in order to maintain his standing as cult hero, though of course it is obvious that he was genetically predisposed to trouble with alcohol.
So was Hemingway. He held his booze better than Fitzgerald did, at least when he was young, and holding his booze was an important part of the macho Papa Hemingway fantasy that he so actively encouraged. Younger writers idolized him, so not merely did they try to imitate his prose style, they also tried to imitate what is now called his lifestyle. In the long run it has become clear that Hemingway’s influence on other writers is more important to American literature than what he wrote himself, and the life of booze is a huge part of that influence. As Laing points out, Williams worshiped Hemingway and went out of his way to sit at his master’s feet in a Key West bar.
Laing went to Key West, just as she went to other points on her subjects’ compasses; indeed, she ended up turning what started out as an exploration of alcoholism generally and literary alcoholism specifically (male American division) into a travelogue with a few drunk writers on the side. Her travels may have given her a somewhat better feel for New York, Key West, New Orleans and Port Angeles (Carver’s hangout in Washington state), but if those travels had any pertinence to her alleged larger purpose, I — stupid me — failed to make the connection.
On the other hand I ended up learning a whole lot more about Olivia Laing than I had the slightest interest in knowing. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is riddled with the first-person singular, more often than not in ways totally irrelevant to the business at hand. Thus: “Months ago, back in England, when I was just beginning to think down into the subject of alcohol, I became certain that whatever journey I was making would begin in a hotel room on East 54th Street, ten minutes’ walk from Broadway.” And: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am interested in absences, and the fact that the room had ceased to exist pleased me.” And: “The AA meeting was on the Upper West Side at 6 p.m. I slept a while at the hotel and then cut across Central Park, eating a hot dog on the way.”
Et cetera. That tells you nothing at all about writers and alcohol. So it cannot surprise you to learn later that, walking along the beach in Key West, Laing is pleased to be told by a passing stranger, and hastens to pass it along to us: “I hope your day is as beautiful as you are.” That is pretty much the poisonous icing on the inedible cake of this dreadful book, an exercise in narcissism and irrelevance from first page to last.
THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING
On Writers and Drinking
By Olivia Laing
Picador. 340 pp. $26