One August evening in 1973, Raymond Carver heard a knock on the door of his faculty apartment at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. Standing in the threshold was an older man, holding an empty glass. “Pardon me,” the man said, “I’m John Cheever. Could I borrow some scotch?” Carver was right to immediately sense a “dual intersection of interests.” The two writers would spend a wasted year (both the year wasted and themselves) as drinking buddies, getting almost no work done but each adding a chapter to their long, sad stories of alcohol abuse.
Critic Olivia Laing’s new book is an Englishwoman’s attempt to understand the legendary and ruinous drinking habits of six American men: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, all titans of American literary misery who also knew their way around a cocktail shaker. She weaves focused and finely interconnected sections of biography with the story of her own road-and-rail trip across America, during which she comes to grips with the role that alcohol played in her troubled upbringing.
The cover of the book depicts a lovingly photographed finger of bourbon sitting next to a typewriter, from which a page of text unspools upward like the smoke from the cigarette that rests in a nearby ashtray, but this is not an ode to the image of manly stoicism or romantic self-destruction. Laing shows us visceral debasements of all stripes: Hemingway as a sodden shade of his famous image, Cheever’s embarrassing attempts to hold on to his WASP-ish superiority while in Alcoholics Anonymous, Berryman drunkenly falling down over and over, bruising and breaking bones, leading up to his final, intentional fall, from the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis.
The title comes from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when the character Brick is asked where he is going and replies “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Laing explains: “Physically, Echo Spring is nothing more than a nickname for a liquor cabinet, drawn from the brand of bourbon it contains. Symbolically, though, it refers to something quite different: perhaps the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.”
Thankfully, Laing avoids the common impulse of the reading public to consider writers as supernatural beings and instead delves into their pasts and their bodies of work with the goal of de-mythologizing, of proving their humanity instead of their mystery. We see that if indeed these men drank to dull some sort of hypersensitivity to existence, then that sensitivity sprang from prosaic formative traumas common in the biographies of many millions of alcoholics, few of whom were famous writers.
All these men were haunted ceaselessly by the specters of their own parents’ battles with alcoholism and suicide. In a letter to his mother during one of his unsuccessful attempts at institutionalized recovery, Berryman listed his lingering questions with pitiable precision:
“1. Did I hear daddy threaten to swim out w me (or Bob?) or drown us both? Or did you tell me later? When?
2. When did I first learn that he’d killed himself?
3. How did I seem to take his death when first told?”
Cheever frequently related a story from his youth that he at least pretended to consider comical: pulling his drunken father down by the arm off the ledge from which he was threatening to leap, the young man pleaded, “Daddy, you shouldn’t do this to me, not in my formative years.”
Laing’s prose displays sensitivity toward alcohol’s corrosion of character and its bifurcating effects on the ego, that elevates the book from a work of biography to one of wrenching humanity: “That’s what alcoholism does to a writer. You begin with alchemy, hard labor, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.”
Whether the alcohol was an essential component of the magnificent work of these men — debate that at your leisure — these lives are for the most part tragedies. Laing’s book is a reminder of a piece of advice that young writers don’t hear often enough: When choosing idols, avoid those who destroyed themselves.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.