By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 01/12/2014 10:00 am EST
Publish date: December 31, 2013 Publisher: Picador | Buy Book
The Trip to Echo Spring is the kind of book that makes you want to read (or re-read) all the works mentioned and examined within its pages. Olivia Laing’s exciting book took me a bit longer to read than most 300-page books because I found myself compelled to set it aside for an hour or two and re-read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” or Ernest Hemingway’s “Now I Lay Me” or the last act of A Streetcar Named Desire and the first act of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Ms. Laing breezily and entertainingly takes us on a journey by plane and car but mostly by train (well, she is British!) to visit the haunts of six of the most celebrated 20th century American men of letters who have one thing in common—alcoholism.
Laing plans the book out in geographical order. She flies into NYC. Then she takes a train to New Orleans. She then flies to Miami (via Charlotte!) and drives down to Key West Florida. Back on the ol’ Amtrak, she moves north to Port Angeles, Washington via St. Paul, Minnesota. All along the way Ms. Laing examines her surroundings, her discoveries, her love of the artists’ works, and how alcohol fueled their creativity and upset and quite often destroyed the writers’ lives.
Throughout, Ms. Laing tells us quite a bit about her experiences with alcoholism. Her mother was in a relationship with an alcoholic and abusive lover for a number of years. One of the reasons the book works so well as a journey of discovery for both the author and her readers is the way Ms. Laing is able to deftly move between eras as well as segue between authors’ lives.
The book is cleverly divided into chapters that act as a thematic guide:
“Echo Spring,” named after the liquor cabinet of Brick Pollitt, the sexually confused anti-hero of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, focuses on compartmentalized lives and how liquor has its own hideout. The chapter begins with a quasi-legendary anecdote featuring visiting Professors John Cheever and Raymond Carver as they drive through the frozen tundra of Iowa to reach the closest state-owned liquor store just as it opens for business at 9:00 am. Ms. Laing then takes us through a step-by step re-reading of Cheever’s short masterpiece “The Swimmer.” The energy she provides in this opening section fuels the remainder of the book as we journey through drunken times of triumph and tragedy.
“The Coffin Trick,” named for the vaudeville stage magic act mentioned in The Glass Menagerie, focuses on the artists feeling trapped and how they sought release with a liquid key. Is it all an illusion—a mental sleight of hand?
“Fishing in the Dark” centers on Hemingway’s chronic insomnia that was either a cause or a symptom of Papa’s alcoholism. This particular section of the book was difficult and challenging. Laing does not make excuses but tries to explain some of the inner workings of Hemingway’s tortured mind. As a personal aside, it was here where I noticed my own denial. I always imagined Hemingway handling his alcohol. Silly, co-dependent me.
“A House on Fire” focuses on F. Scott Fitzgerald and the tragic figure present in all of his novels. The house in question refers to the brutal death of his wife Zelda in a sanitarium fire where she and 11 other inmates were trapped and burned to death.
“The Bloody Papers” focuses on Hemingway’s family and how the past always comes back to haunt the writer as he searches for the truth.
In “Going South,” Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway deal with their sexual relationships, their fame, their declining skills (both physically and mentally), and the strain and heartache of sudden losses.
“The Confessions of Mr. Bones” explores the trials and tribulations (and unmistakable genius) of poet John Berryman, who proved to be as accident-prone as Derrick Rose and as self-destructive as Fitzgerald and Cheever combined. This chapter in particular angers the reader by the shear waste of potential. Berryman tried rehabilitation to no avail.
“Half of Him” focuses on Raymond Carver and his descent into alcoholic depths only to rebound, embrace recovery and have for all practical purposes a second act or second half; it provides a twist ending worthy of…well, Carver. The book culminates with a surprise visit from Ms. Laing’s mother and a trip to the firing range, then ends with the full text of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps to Recovery.
Each chapter is compelling and can be read separately, but I don’t recommend it. This is an easy and entertaining, yet challenging, read. It is difficult to follow these writers’ lives without examining your own. The book never quite comes together because Ms. Laing leaves a lot of her story out of the proceedings. Why American authors? Why must she tell us what she is drinking every time she settles into a location? Is she trying to avoid any hypocrisy on her part or is there more to it? Unfortunately, the ambiguity is more of a distraction than anything else. She should either jump all the way into the pool or stay out of the water altogether.
However, any fan of the six writers or American 20th century literature in general, or anyone fascinated or drawn to the demons in a bottle will enjoy this book. But fair warning: You will want to have a number of these artists’ works at the ready. You will want to read the collected stories of John Cheever, Tender is the Night, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 77 Dream Songs, and the collected stories of Raymond Carver while toddling some tea. Anything harder doesn’t seem worth the pain.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.