What can you say about a book entitled “…On Writers and Drinking”? It’s not a confession, an autobiography, a biography, nor an argument. It’s a travelogue of sorts, following Olivia Laing’s trip to Echo Spring, literally and figuratively. She says the phrase refers heading to the liquor cabinet for a taste of Echo Spring label liquor, and, more symbolically, “to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily, at least, with a sufficiency of booze.” She follows John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and Tennessee Williams (not necessarily in that order) through alcoholic writing careers. Some of them survive, some don’t. It’s also her own journey as the author-child of alcoholics. How does one respond to such a story? Perhaps as a member, as always all these authors were at some point, of AA would: by listening and witnessing to the struggle.
This is a demanding read. You can’t simply read this book and walk away. It compels us to some reckoning, some response. Like her latest book, Lonely City, Olivia Laing takes on a tough topic, one few want to face. Indeed, she cites “denial” as one of the buzzwords surrounding alcoholism. Not only is the subject demanding, the structure is demanding, as well. Sometimes it’s hard to track which author we’re following. Fitzgerald and Hemingway knew each other, as did Carter and Cheever. Their stories overlap and inform each other. Laing wades through an astonishing amount of material: personal notes, biographies, autobiographies, tales from spouses and friends in their own books and letters. And, she does so while taking an arduous journey by train across the country.
Not surprisingly, in the middle, Laing gets weighed down by all the sadness and travel. (And at that same point, I got almost fed up trying to remember where she’d been and where she was going – if there even was a destination). She takes solace in Key West, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Williams all retreat for months and sometimes years at a time. She takes a swim, as they do. Water is a theme throughout the book, relating to alcohol: “drowning your sorrows.” It drowns and it pretends to cleanse.
The water theme helps makes some sense of the muddled trip. Taking on these writers’ sorrow, Laing makes herself a part of their story. It’s as though she’s seeing and experiencing life from under water, murkily, not quite in focus, a little strained for breath. This interlude in Key West is the best example of the ways Laing herself is a bridge – transitioning from author to author, from research to the here-and-now, from the story of her trip to these authors’ stories, and form herself to us as audience. Having a theme besides alcohol to draw all the stories together together helped me as a reader, by balancing despair and relief, drowning and purifying.
Perhaps a drawback of the book is that it isn’t about anything. But perhaps that’s its beauty, too. I read it like I listen to new music: a little shocked and uncomfortable, not knowing how to confront the newness. When I let go and listen like listening is my only job, I come away with a ton of compassion.