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American fiction’s drunken masters

by Peter Conrad

The Observer

Rivers run through Olivia Laing’s writing — sometimes the real thing, either narrow and innocuous like a backwoods creek or mile-wide like the Mississippi; occasionally streams of memory that flow backwards, and sometimes gushers of tears; always a steady current of liquidly eloquent words.

THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: Why Writers Drink, by Olivia Laing. Canongate, 2013, 284 pp., £20 (hardcover)

The title of Laing’s first book, “To the River,” was her command to herself, and it sent her to the banks of the Ouse in Sussex, where Virginia Woolf committed suicide. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is about another journey that is psychological as well as physical: the title, a quote from a maudlin drunkard in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,” directs Laing to the river of oblivion sealed in whiskey bottles. But her quest for the secret misery that turned a handful of American writers into alcoholics also includes visits to the frozen Connecticut River, near where the self-loathing John Cheever lived; to the trout rivers of Michigan, in which Ernest Hemingway fished during his happy childhood; to the Mississippi’s brimming levee in New Orleans, home of the tottery Tennessee Williams; to the bridge above the same river in Minneapolis from which John Berryman jumped to his death; finally to Raymond Carver’s cabin near Seattle, situated where “the river joins the sea” and spills at last into unconsciousness.

Laing followed the Ouse in order to understood Woolf’s motives for plunging into it, and now she analyses her sozzled subjects by tracking them the length and breadth of America. When Laing wants to think, she goes for a walk, but this undertaking is beyond a pedestrian’s scope. Mostly she travels by train, which keeps her close to the ground and allows her to act out her own “dreams of crossing over water”; she drives from Miami to Key West because an 11-km bridge along the way permits her to relish, with a combination of dread and desire, “the enormous proximity of water.” Below her, throughout her long peregrination, she hears the sound of wrecked literary lives sluicing down the plughole.

One of the existences decanted into the waste pipes might have been Laing’s own. Gradually her urgent personal reasons for this trek emerge: a disturbed family history that could have led to dissipation or what she calls “deliquescence” but instead has made Laing trust in the power of words to “recondition the world” — to refresh and renovate it, as she does when, at the end of her journey around Carver’s native terrain in the far northwest, she dips her hand in a river and senses “snowmelt, old ice, clear and astringent as gin.”

This is gin that Laing has detoxified, just as she admires the “stream of adjectives” in a sentence Williams wrote in rehab which imagines being washed clean by “the buoyantly, pleasantly cool water” at Key West. Water is as fluent as thought, but also as incisive as conscience: the difficult, self-eroding business of coming to terms with one’s mistakes reminds Laing of “watching water work through rock.”

Alcoholics Anonymous encourages the afflicted to call on God’s help during their 12-step progress toward “spiritual awakening.” Laing has her own version of this religiosity, and on her way from New York to Florida in early spring she looks forward to a rebaptism: down south, “the water’s warm and you can carry out, off season, those summery rites of anointment and immersion.” The soul’s laundering is not meant to be automatic and easy, like a quick shower. Laing therefore compels herself to take a dip in the shark-infested ocean, near the place where another soused poet, Hart Crane, drowned himself. Like the hero of Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” she is “embraced and sustained” by water, floating free as if in the womb — though for her the outcome is happier than that experienced by Cheever’s character, who commutes between backyard pools that eventually dry up and leave him stranded in an unforgivingly wintry climate.

The form Laing has invented mixes literary criticism and poetic reverie, travel reportage and confessional autobiography, and the fit is sometimes awkward. Casual conversations with fellow travelers pass the time but often have dubious relevance; her itinerary can seem — as she says of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jerky essay about his alcoholic crack-up — “circuitous and rambling.” The subtitle promises a general answer to a question that the book avoids directly asking. Doesn’t the creative imagination always require external help — from a deity or a muse as classical poets believed, or from the animating breeze exhaled by nature, on which romantic poets relied?

Samuel Coleridge needed opium, and Aldous Huxley recommended a hallucinogenic cactus. Is writing itself addictive, a disease not a cure?

Despite its haphazard structure, “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.