Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring starts out like a bad joke. Raymond Carver and John Cheever walk into a bar—or rather, a liquor store. Within the first few pages, Laing introduces us to the men: brilliant writers from varying backgrounds who in 1973 have ended up both at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and in the spirals of addiction. The group biography widens after that, introducing writers who, like Cheever and Carver, balance alcoholism with creative genius: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and John Berryman.
Some of these stories are familiar—many will recognize the section from A Moveable Feast where Hemingway and Fitzgerald argue drunkenly through France on a trip to retrieve Fitzgerald’s car—and others less so. But as Laing begins retracing their literary steps, common threads appear, not only in these men’s struggle with alcohol, but the intertwined themes of sleeplessness and insanity, motifs of fire and ocean, and the recurring question: was booze helping or hindering the creation of their work?
The last question immediately brings to mind another set of artists and addictions: the jazz greats. Did smack put Charlie Parker in the right state of mind to improvise, or did Miles Davis’s skill conquer in spite of the drug? But heroin differs from booze in that alcohol is legal, socially accepted, and tangled up in almost all aspects of society. So the subject of addiction is a more nebulous one. Laing writes of Hemingway’s scoffing attitude toward men who can’t handle their liquor, of Carver’s note that at Iowa he and Cheever did nothing but drink (“‘I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters’”) and of Berryman’s praise from a student (“‘The most brilliant, intense, articulate man I’d ever met’”). They each walk a tricky path, and Laing is there to walk it with them.
Laing structures this unusual biography in two very personal ways. First, she retraces the subjects’ steps, taking trains from Williams’ Manhattan hotel room to his home in New Orleans, back through Key West where Hemingway wrote and drank, through to Berryman’s Minneapolis and Carver’s grave in Port Angeles. The trip showcases the tide pools that these men got sucked into; on many of the stops, she visits places that several called home. It’s a unique itinerary that also traces the major literary landmarks of the 20th century. And British Laing brings a unique perspective. A geographic outsider, she views each scene with fresh and competent eyes.
The second structural device Laing uses hits far closer to home. As she details each writer’s struggle with alcoholism, Laing tells of her own encounters with the disease: her mother’s partner drank throughout her childhood. Since many of the writers come from families who were also addicted, her own experience lends a compassionate note to the biography. When she arrives at her final destination, Carver’s grave, she meets and has a drink with her mother; everything seems to come full circle.
In order to balance the empathetic, anecdotal side of the biography, Laing sidetracks at length into the science behind both addiction and treatment. She speaks to neurologists and attends AA meetings, details research linking addiction with stress in youth (“The results were staggering. In every condition… there was an unambiguous relationship between the percentage of sufferers and the degree of childhood trauma”). Although these sections are less interesting than the stories of the writers themselves, they seem both necessary and useful.
In fact, each section of Echo Spring fits together tightly, every mini-biography interlacing with the others with pleasing parallels and haunting foreshadowing. There is nothing that feels flabby or out of place. But there is a large and womanly elephant in the room: Laing profiles no female writers. At the beginning of the book, she hints that she will tell us why no women ended up in this greatest hits, but she does not follow through. Themes of masculinity, of living up to fathers’ expectations, and of the responsibilities of war echo throughout, but Laing never really addresses why this is the lens through which she views what she clearly thinks are the best American writers of the 20th century.
Barring this exclusion, Echo Spring is lyrical and engaging, a fresh look at important writers, centered around what was arguably the most important aspect of their lives.
– Hannah Thurman is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. In 2011, she completed studies in creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she received Highest Honors for her thesis, a collection of stories called “Good Enough Secrets.” She has stories and reviews published in The Coffin Factory, The Apeiron Review, The Menda City Review, Fiction365, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and others.