The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

Olivia Laing

There is this image I have, that many people have, in fact, although I think that all of us would struggle to say exactly where this image comes from, of the great American 20th century writer, sitting at his — always his in this image — Underwood typewriter, a bottle of bourbon by his side, unshaven, unkempt, eyes wild as he pounds at the keys, pugilistically searching for the truth, the deeper truth, the truth behind the truth, stopping now and then to take another swig of gutrot.

It’s a romantic image. It’s an image of its time, when mass media was starting to become a real thing and we started developing an appetite for information about our heroes, but only enough so that we could still worship them. Hemmingway, Carver, Cheever — we knew these guys drank a lot, but they were heroes, so maybe drinking is in some way heroic? Maybe the whiskey is what pulls back the curtains and allows them to see what we can’t? In vino veritas, after all.

Here in 2016, we know too much. About everything. It makes it hard to have heroes. We know that alcoholism is a disease and that all disease is ugly. We know that living with an alcoholic is a nightmare and that booze destroys entire families. We know that alcoholics are, fundamentally, pathetic. If these guys were alive today, they would be humiliated by paparazzi and end up on some Celebrity Rehab reality show.

The Trip to Echo Creek takes its title from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Tennessee Williams is one of six writers featured here, alongside F Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. All great writers, all lives blighted by alcohol. Many of them knew each other — the opening scene of the book imagines Carver and Cheever pounding whiskey at the bar near the university where they were colleagues.

Laing takes us on a physical journey to New York, New Orelans and other places where these men lived and worked, while also journeying through their work and looking at how they themselves wrote about alcohol. In all six stories we see common themes of childhood trauma, heartbreak, and shyness (even Hemmingway was shy, despite his reputation). As Williams said, “There’s two reasons, separate or together. 1, he’s scared shitless of something. 2, he can’t face the truth about something”.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this book is that there is a seventh writer present: Olivia Laing. Whatever else these writers may be, they are the titans of literature, and the book is filled with excerpts from their work and personal letters. It’s such exalted company that you wouldn’t blame Laing for trying to blend into the background, restricting her own prose to not much more than framing.

Instead, Laing doesn’t hesitate to be beautiful, writing ravishing descriptions of bars in decaying hotel, chance meetings with strangers on trains, the rivers Hemingway fished in, the seas Cheever swam in, the lake that Carver used to look out over before he died, where bald eagles flock in the skies. Laing does stand toe-to-toe with these legends, and it’s quite a testament to her own talent.

She’s driven by a question of her own. Having experienced alcohol-related abuse in her early childhood, she is both intrigued and scared of the power of the bottle. Her journey is about trying to learn a little more about how it seduces people, changes them, and how those people then find a road back to some kind of recovery.

So in many ways, it’s not really a book about great writers at all. These men just happen to be people who have documented the alcoholic journey better than everyone, from Hemingway taking up rum at 15, to Cheever trying to connect with the religious side of AA. This is the truth of the human condition, what those writers were all looking for — we break, and sometimes we heal.

It’s a remarkable journey, and a remarkable book.