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 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.
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