The Trip to Echo Spring – Olivia Laing

Laing’s book begins with an epigraph from the Handbook of Medical Psychiatry:

When alcoholics do drink, most eventually become intoxicated, and it is this recurrent intoxication that eventually brings their lives down in ruins…Yet despite these consequences the alcoholic continues to drink…Previously upstanding individuals may find themselves lying, cheating, stealing, and engaging in all manner of deceit to protect or cover up their drinking…Many alcoholics appear quite grandiose, yet on closer inspection one sees that their self-esteem has slipped away from them.

In The Trip to Echo Spring (a title taken from a line Brick says in the Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Laing examines the lives of six American male writers and alcoholics – John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. What drove them to drink and how did it affect their writing?

Laing decides to do this while travelling through America herself, visiting places important to these writers – …through New York, New Orleans and Key West, and then north-west, via St. Paul…and on to the rivers and creeks of Port Angeles…. She uses the connections between the places and the people to provide a loose structure to her work. I say loose because the book meanders from the writers and their relationships to key pieces of their work to what it means to be an alcoholic to Laing’s journey to Laing’s own family background and the affect alcoholism had on them. Some readers will dislike this structure, I’m sure, but  (particularly as a fan of Sebald) it worked wonderfully for me. Rather than investigate an area or a writer wholly in one section, you get pieces of information like this:

In 1980, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders dropped the term ‘alcoholism’ entirely, replacing it with two interrelated disorders: alcohol abuse (defined as ‘repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences’) and alcohol dependence (defined as ‘alcohol abuse combined with tolerance, withdrawl and an uncontrollable drive to drink’).

alongside descriptions like this:

The city impressed itself on me by way of a repeating currency of images, a coinage of yellow cabs and fire escapes, brownstones hung with wreaths of conifer and ornamental cabbage tied up with tartan ribbon. Delis stocked with smoked pigs’ legs and wheels of giant cheese. Plums and mangoes stacked in crates. Fish on ice, heaped in delicate, slippery piles of coral, silver, flint and grey.

which makes The Trip to Echo Spring a thoroughly absorbing read. But, be warned, this book comes with two adverse side effects: one, the descriptions of the effect that even the smallest amount of alcohol has on your body will put you off drinking (temporarily, at least) and two, Laing’s critiques of the six writers’ work will have you rushing to buy all the ones you don’t already own.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Trip to Echo Spring – Olivia Laing

  1. I loved the meandering and meditative style of this book. Laing writes so well and so gracefully – her descriptions of the cities and landscapes are simply beautiful and your quote really captures this aspect of her prose.
    I was struck by her observation that immersion in water is a recurring theme/image in the work of these writers…and the parallel between this submersion and losing yourself to the multifaceted effects of alcohol. There’s something in this and it had me scurrying to re-read The Swimmer by Cheever.
    I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read any of Raymond Carver’s stories (despite being a fan of the film ‘Short Cuts’), but he’s on the list now!

    • Yes, I was impressed with the water theme too. Have you read ‘To the River’, Laing’s first book?

      I love Raymond Carver. He was the first writer I read that made me think I shouldn’t bother! I haven’t read any Cheever but I was desperate to read ‘The Swimmer’ after the opening pages of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’.

      • No, I haven’t read ‘To the River’, but I’m going to have to!
        Where to start with Carver? ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, perhaps?
        You’ve probably seen it but if others are interested, Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ is readily available online.

        • To be honest, I’d be rubbish at advising you where to start with Carver. I was given a copy of ‘Gazebo’ on a university course and then I devoured his Selected Stories.

          I didn’t know ‘The Swimmer’ was available online. Thanks, I’m off to have a read!

  2. Souns great. I have an image of what Scott’s driking meant to Zelda and how it almost destroyed his carrer, but I had no idea about the other writers’ problem.

    What are you going to read? I may join you in some T. Wililams if you don’t mind 🙂 Streetcar is one of my favourite books.

    • I think I’m going to re-read Carver’s Selected Stories; I definitely want to read Cheever’s Collected Stories, although I might have to ask the birthday fairy/Santa Claus for that, and I was thinking of Tennyson’s later plays – I’ve read and taught The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar and Cat several times, so it’d be nice to read something different. What do you fancy?

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