I like an unexpected recommendation for a book. This one came from Vanity Fair. I always get the Hollywood issue, but frankly this year’s fell flat. In part because they decided to give prominence to the cast of The Butler rather than 12 Years a Slave, thus missing a trick. So I was flicking through it and came across a side panel in which people I’d never heard of named a book they were reading. Kelly Marcel (screenwriter of Saving Mr Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey) picked The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, a description of six alcoholic writers of the twentieth century. And I thought, ooh, that’ll do.
I’m glad I did. Not only do you get huge chunks of biography and gossip about literary figures like Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway (yup, it’s all blokes) but details of their wretched descent into alcohol hell.
There was a fashion in the 70s for seeing alcohol as the necessary counterpart of any true artist: Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski etc. This book says maybe for some, but look at the damage.
It starts with the car journeys that Raymond Carver and John Cheever used to take when they lectured at the same university. Always ending up in a hotel room where they would sit opposite one another and down pints of whiskey. No talking, just drinking. It gets your attention.
Laing can write. This is from a description of the coast near where Carver found solace later in his life.
The beach was sandy and scattered with ninepins of driftwood.
I knelt and dipped my hand [in the stream], wincing. It had come straight off the mountain snowmelt, old ice, clear and astringent as gin.
It enables her to hit you with this:
You could get back on your feet in place like this, after a lifetime of messing up, of being torn apart by the overwhelming incompatibility of your needs. All those bad things you’d done, back in another life: they might rinse away out here, given time, given a landscape so explicitly devoted to the display of time’s long reach. Watching water work through rock, you might come to a kind of accommodation with the fact that you’d once smashed your wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man; that you’d hit her with a wine bottle, severing an artery and causing her to lose almost sixty percent of her blood. Other things too. Stupid slippery things: drink-driving, bouncing cheques, running out on bills, committing fraud, letting people down, making up dumb and pointless lies. Hardly any wonder Carver’s nickname was Running Dog, or that he said, a long time later, ‘I made a wasteland out of everything I touched.’
It’s not just muck-raking; she loves his writing and finishes the book by recounting her favourite of his short stories.
So, what’s the point? Why detail humiliation after humiliation? In part, so that she can talk about the genius. But also, she is clearly looking for an answer. Though she never openly discusses her own relationship with alcohol, her biography – her mother’s female partner who was a violent alcoholic, Laing’s attendance at meetings, the drinks she has in the course of the book – all suggest someone trying to come to her own accommodation. The whole thing is written as a journey, as she visits the US to see the places where the writers lived. Early on she describes:
The startling co-existence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart.
It’s about alcoholism and the pain it is supposed to alleviate. But also, and most powerfully about writing itself. Having found the visitors’ book kept in a metal box near Carver’s grave, she says:
It struck me then that driving out to a writer’s grave, all these anonymous suffering strangers were putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness.
I recommend it. If only for the unflinching biographies of great writers and their terrifying shadows.