The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing was the last book I read in 2013, and it was a good way to end the year. It’s the kind of nonfiction I like: bookish, elegantly written, with a mix of genres. The book is mostly biography, but it contains elements of travel narrative and memoir as well. The idea of the book is to trace the influence of alcohol in the creative lives of six writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. Laing travels by train around the U.S. visiting places of importance to these writers, and while describing her journey, she tells us about the lives of these authors and the ways their paths crossed and their experiences coincided. The connections among these writers proliferate: they were friends, enemies, colleagues, rivals, fellow sufferers. Laing looks not only at the biographies of these writers, but at what they had to say about alcohol in their writing, both in their creative work and in letters and journals.
Laing undertakes a LOT in this book, and for the most part she succeeds. The biographies are interesting, and her insights into the literature she examines are strong. What she has to say about how alcohol influenced these writers’ lives and creative work is illuminating. I kept wishing she would develop the memoir aspects of the book further, though. With Litlove, I wanted more. This touches on another part of the book I found puzzling: Laing’s decision to discuss only male writers. She says in a parenthesis early in the book that
There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.
The reasons that “will become apparent” are presumably to do with her mother’s partner who was an alcoholic. Laing sketches out this story in the book. But the reasons for writing only about men never did “become apparent” for me; to say that her experience — very powerful though it was — with an alcoholic woman meant that she couldn’t write about alcoholic women didn’t satisfy me. The explanation might have satisfied me if she had developed it at greater length, but further explanations never came. So I felt that Laing missed an opportunity to shed light on her own experience in the way she does with the writers under examination. I would have loved to see more discussion of gender itself and the role it played in writers’ relationships with alcohol. Have alcoholic men had a fundamentally different experience than alcoholic women? Perhaps this is asking too much of a book that already accomplishes so much, but it does leave what felt to me like a hole in the book.
Still, there is so much here to admire. My biggest fear when picking up biographical writing is that it will be boring, and Laing’s book is decidedly not that. And she makes it look like weaving together multiple strands of narrative, complete with beautiful sentences, is an easy thing to do, when I know for sure it definitely is not.