The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia  Laing
(Canongate, 2013)

The Trip to Echo Spring

by Olivia Laing

Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.

All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often they did their drinking together - Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of 1920’s Paris; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.

Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever’s New York to Williams’ New Orleans, from Hemingway’s Key West to Carver’s Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery. Beautiful, captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.

Reviews

Olivia Laing’s writing is beautifully modulated, her tone knowledgeable yet intimate. She can evoke a state of mind as gracefully as she evokes a landscape. The Trip to Echo Spring is a book for all writers or would-be writers. It's one of the best books I’ve read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring. ”
- Hilary Mantel
I loved The Trip to Echo Spring. It's a beautiful book that has stayed with me in a profound way. ”
- Nick Cave
Laing's is a travel book as well as a series of critical biographies... It's also a personal journey, as Laing grew up with alcoholism in her family and wants to make sense of the disease. To her, no romance attaches to it at all. ”
- Blake Morrison, The Guardian
[A] beautifully written journey in search of six American literary drunks.”
- The Sunday Times
The book’s subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. …[Laing has produced] a nuanced portrait – via biography, memoir, analysis – of the urge of the hyperarticulate to get raving drunk.”
- Talitha Stevenson, New Statesman
Laing is a fine and stylish travel writer, with a sharp eye for passing detail and an acute ear for oddly amusing conversations. ml ”
- Gordon Bowker, Independent
Laing makes us care about these writers' sufferings, the self-wreaked ravages on vital organs, the inexorable blackings-out of genius. But she makes us cherish even more what they left behind: literature soaked with ‘the power to map the more difficult regions of human experience’ ”
- Caroline Sanderson, The Independent on Sunday
The Trip to Echo Spring is original, brave and very moving. Laing's way of looking at a natural world that is free from human faults repeatedly prompts something like the "spiritual awakening" AA attendees hope for. Her insights shine with beauty yet are shaded by sympathy and compassion, as when she notices in passing a herd of deer with "faces soft and unguarded as sleepwalkers". Her recommended therapy, for drunks and for everyone else who suffers, is "the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone". The self-destructive subjects in her clinic testify to that; so does her own writing. ”
- Peter Conrad, The Observer
In pages of great lyric beauty, Laing travels in the footsteps of Cheever and company across America from New York to New Orleans. At times the writing shows a Hemingway influence (‘In Alabama the earth was red and there was wisteria in the trees’); at others, a demotic Raymond Carver cut (‘The hell with it’). The book, a hybrid of travel and literary criticism, is always engaging to read, as it casts a humane eye on the accidents, illness, social impairment and other damage caused by drink to the poet Berryman in particular, whose outraged innards and pale, wayworn face showed the horror of his multi-day benders and the moaning after the night before.”
- Ian Thomson, Spectator