Always thinking, always drinking: Tennessee Williams in 1970. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images.
The Trip to Echo Spring
Canongate, 284pp, £20
Olivia Laing’s second book takes its title from a line in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s an apt phrase for a book about writers and alcoholism, with its combined dose of the sublime and the helplessly mortal. But “Echo Spring” is only the liquor cabinet, named after a brand of whiskey.
Laing’s ear was apparently made to catch such notes of melancholia; the book’s subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. She has produced not an answer to a glib question, but a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis –of the urge of the hyperarcticulate to get raving drunk.
The biographical focus is on the lives of six writers – Williams among them – and Laing visits the places in America where they variously lived, drank and dried out. The journey imposes a stagey narrative that the book could have done without, but Laing’s experiences give line-by-line pleasure and make for bright collisions with the past. A pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli in New York in hand, she walks to the Queensboro Bridge and remembers that this is where “John Cheever once saw two hookers playing hopscotch with a hotel room key”.
When the narrative device recedes, Laing is free to use quotation and analysis. The alcoholic writer’s sense of mortality is key. F Scott Fitzgerald, an insomniac, had an annihilating vision before sleep; he imagined he was “only one of the dark millions riding forward in black buses toward the unknown”. In his autobiography, Williams recounts a teenage realisation that he was “a member of multiple humanity . . . not a unique creature but only one among the multitude of its fellows”. Yet it is tough to embody epiphanies; at the height of his drinking, Williams’s diary shows him in the opposite mode: “ ‘Me’ – that would be an adequate one-word, twoletter entry for every day.”
Laing comes from a family affected by alcohol and her hyper-vigilance to inconsistency makes her a good match for her muddled subjects. As she says, writing about writers poses various challenges – they use autobiographical material in unpredictable ways. But, she writes, “when the writer is also an alcoholic . . . this migration of lived experience becomes entangled with another process: the habit of denial”. When Ernest Hemingway refers to his own insomnia in a letter to Fitzgerald, for instance, he makes the imperious claim that “since I have stopped giving a good goddamn about anything in the past it doesn’t bother me much”. But, during a period of moderate drinking, this same exemplar of self-mastery wrote in a quite different tone – abject, self-abasing – to another friend, “In about ten hours from now I will have a nice good lovely glass of Marqués de Riscal with supper.”
Self-ironising is another muddling habit. A plastered Fitzgerald might, in the words of his friend H L Mencken, have shocked a Baltimore dinner party “by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe”, but, as Laing writes, “you can yank down your pants . . . and still be a man in mortal terror of exposing who you are”. And you can show that you have a naked body just like every other man’s and still be in mortal terror of accepting it, which is also to say that it is possible to be in mortal terror of mortality – at which point drunkenness might seem like a solution.
The book achieves its greatest force through Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition, which often recalls the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. Of a childhood scene involving her mother’s alcoholic girlfriend and the police, Laing notes that her strongest memory is “my conviction that if only I were allowed to speak to her I could calm her down – a piece of absurdly unrealistic co-dependence that’s had long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life”.
By the final chapters, Laing maintains this psychoanalytic style; though neuroscience and biochemistry feature earlier on, their offerings seem as poignant as Laing hoping for insights on the Tennessee Williams Walking Tour. She notes that submersion in water is a prevalent image in the work of alcoholic writers. Fitzgerald’s story “The Swimmers” implies that it is the cure for the hero’s unhappy marriage; Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” describes it as “the resumption of a natural condition”. There is, as Laing writes, “some hint of regression” in all this.
There is also an expression of longing. As John Berryman put it in an autobiographical poem: “Hunger was constitutional with him,/wine, cigarettes, liquor and need need need.” In a letter written in 1962 to Bill Wilson, who later founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Jung described the alcoholic’s “need” as “the equivalent . . . of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness . . . You see, alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ . . . The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
Talitha Stevenson is an author and psychotherapist