The involvement of alcohol with writing is surely no secret. However, this circumstance is usually disregarded as a shameful habit or voyeuristically glorified as an extravagance of fame. Rarely, though, is the interaction of writing and drinking studied for understanding as it is in Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. Laing, a British writer and editor, studies six American writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver, all of whom were writers profoundly influenced by a dependence on alcohol.
The book has garnered much media attention in literary circles and not undeservingly so. Part of this success is due to the way that Laing blends the essence of the book--biography and literary criticism--with a memoir that forms through a travel narrative. Laing deftly avoids what would be an easy (and subsequently boring) arrangement of studying each author strictly by chapter. Instead, Laing often spends the bulk of a chapter on one particular author while making connections between them and others she writes about. These connections are sometimes brief allusions in a sentence or two, but sometimes they are whole paragraphs that connect one writer with the other. The result, as she travels across America visiting the spots these writers worked and lived in, is less frenetic than it may seem. While she travels the geography that connects the writers, the world suddenly seems, despite a vast expanse of time and miles, smaller and more manageable. Thus, there is a sort of glorious chaos in the book’s structure that is enhanced by unmistakable enthusiasm. Clearly, Laing loves these writers and their works, and readers will be swept away by her feverish excitement that practically drips from the pages.
Each writer receives his due because of Laing’s ability to show correlations between them, but naturally someone must be discussed the most. The winner here seems to be Tennessee Williams. It is, after all, his words that inspired her title. True to form, though, that even when focusing on Williams, Laing manages to connect other writers through her references. This is true of several other authors whom are mentioned in passing but not studied exclusively like the book’s big six. One of these authors is Laing, who inserts herself sometimes startlingly and randomly at various junctures. She recounts her interactions with the places she travels and the various figures she encounters. As she does so, she also relates to readers the tale of her personal dealings with people in the grips of alcoholism. This personal experience lends details to the book’s discussion of AA and various medical tidbits about how alcohol affects the body. Like most of the book, these parts seem cobbled together but integrated smoothly, so that these details enhance the reading without disrupting the flow of the narrative. Readers are likely to be so interested in the different pieces Laing presents that they will be overwhelmed with what to read next.
All of this material by itself would have made a great book, yet there are additional elements for the reader to enjoy. These include a map that roughly outlines Laing’s travels, chronological lists of the authors’ lives, a transcript of an interview with Laing, and extensive documentation of her research organized in a proper and a detailed bibliography that somehow, with the book’s easy-going narrative, seems less intimidating than usual source acknowledgements. These materials make The Trip to Echo Spring a useful tool for literary reference that will likely be reached for first because of the sheer enjoyment of the read.
One of the most prominent extras is the black-and-white photographs of the authors that appear intermittently, often at the end of certain chapters and sans caption to accompany them. These photos are effective: they isolate the figures from their fame and present them simplistically as human beings, an honesty that engenders sympathy for their problems and addictions even if such troubles cannot be fully understood by readers who do not suffer similar afflictions.
Some may argue that Laing’s admiration for these writers and her experiences with alcohol ruin her objectivity, but to make such a claim would be erroneous. Laing never condones the behavior of alcoholics or these writers; instead, she examines the issue with a personal touch that any reader can appreciate. This book Laing has written is a well-researched journey, one that literally chronicles travels while metaphorically exploring the depths of compassion and understanding needed to address addiction. All of these various elements, so smoothly blended, serve to create an all-around enjoyable read that defies true classification: a published cocktail if there ever was one.