Poetry News

On 'Fish' and 'Fallen Angels': Book Forum Considers Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

By Harriet Staff


Book Forum introduces readers to Olivia Laing's heartfelt glimpse at American writers whose literary prestige and alcoholism were so intertwined: John Berryman, John Steinbeck, Raymond Carver, among others. (Not pictured in this snapshot and worth mentioning are several female writers who struggled with alcohol addiction, including Elizabeth Bishop, and sadly more, mentioned to acknowledge the vastness of this struggle within the writing community.) Our ruminations begin at Book Forum:

As a young literatus in training, I got myself early and often to the Lion’s Head, a legendary and now-extinct writers’ bar on Sheridan Square. Lined with the framed covers of books by its denizens, it offered an atmosphere of boozy bonhomie and the opportunity for literary stargazing of a special sort. (Hey, I’m urinating right next to Fred Exley!) And it didn’t take long before I was told that gin mill’s trademark anecdote: A nonscribbling civilian drops into the Lion’s Head for a couple of beers. After taking in the scene for a while, he remarks to the guy on the barstool next to him, “There sure are a lot of writers here with drinking problems.”This elicits the swift reply: “Wrong. There are a lot of drinkers here with writing problems.”

The same conundrum informs Olivia Laing’s heartfelt and melancholy alcoholic travelogue: Why, in America especially, are the production of literature and the consumption of destructive quantities of alcohol so intimately intertwined? Which came first, the bottle or the typewriter? While this condition has abated quite a bit in our more abstemious time (it’s been many years since I’ve seen anyone come back loaded from a publishing lunch), for much of the twentieth century, literary distinction and alcoholism were strongly linked. An oft-cited fact is that five of the first six American Nobel Prize winners—Lewis, O’Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—were alcoholics, and the list of other notable writers who suffered from the disease would more or less fill the allotted word count of this review. Laing, a British editor and critic, battens on to six of these sad, brilliant cases, all men, in an attempt to solve, or at least shed light on, the paradox that their desolate and haunted lives yielded “some of the most beautiful writing this world has ever seen.” Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman—ransacked souls all who drank like fish and wrote like fallen angels.

Laing’s method of investigation is to undertake what’s called in AA-speak a “geographical,” a meandering journey, mostly by train, to the significant loci in these writers’ lives, in a gamble that the spirits of place might offer deeper insights than the usual critical and biographical approaches. The motives for her transcontinental travels are a bit fuzzy and abstract (“I wanted time to think, and what I wanted to think about was alcohol,” she asserts in her introduction, and she later alludes to a period of domestic chaos when her mother lived with an alcoholic partner), but the strength of her writing and the shrewdness of her surmises more than justify the exercise. Laing has the ability to penetrate the barriers of denial and sheer fraudulence that all alcoholics, and writers in particular, throw up against others, and especially against themselves. At times she achieves a certain level of soul travel or metempsychosis in taking us into the dark and twisted interior spaces where psychic trauma and creative inspiration struggle for mastery. [...]