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BOOK REVIEW: "The Trip to Echo Spring" by Olivia Laing

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BOOK REVIEW: The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing (Picador) 2013

As a journalist of a gonzo-ish bent, I have long had an admiration for the sorts of writers who have a distinct talent of cutting through the bullshit while revealing great truths about the human condition.

Many familiar with my writings will know I am a longtime fan of the writings of the late Hunter S. Thompson. A man who understood a thing about truth – and about the lying liars who lie for a living. We know he would have had an utter field day writing about the Trumpenfuhrer and his childish antics and his seemingly infinite ignorance about nearly everything.

As Thompson once said, “I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.” And the Good Doctor was right in this observation, largely in that once it is “five o’clock somewhere,” bottle tops are popped, cans are opened and corks are uncorked. Even today, for all the talk about opioids and marijuana, more people in the U.S. are drinking alcohol than they have in years. Of course there are many reasons why this is, but I won’t get into that here.

In any event, the “social lubricant” known as alcohol has helped reveal these veiled truths for what they are. And the great writers and poets of our age – most long dead – imbibed daily, some succumbing to alcoholism. Others using it as a tool in their creative process.

Some were more successful than others. But regardless, British writer Olivia Laing, in her 2013 book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, wanted to learn more about alcohol’s impact on six male American writers of the 20th century, namely: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Just a bottle of Scotch or gin, a cigarette and a typewriter. And we are in business!

The book’s title comes from a line in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where the character Brick frequently takes a trip to a liquor cabinet containing Echo Spring bourbon.

Alcoholism is not a simple condition to define,” Laing writes early in the book, adding that it’s really several things, including alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. She wrote this after recounting Cheever’s alcohol-fueled antics with younger writer and poet Carver in the early 1970’s when he taught at the University of Iowa – seeking out a bottle of Scotch. There are lots of drunken journeys like that in the book.

Cheever would later die in upstate New York, in 1982, of cancer. Carver, meanwhile, would die six years later, on the opposite side of the continent in Port Angeles, Washington, also succumbing to cancer.

And Laing decides it best to actually visit the American locales where these writers lived, wrote, and in some cases, died. She embarked on the trip via train, beginning in New York, winding her way down to Charlotte, North Carolina, with a side trip to Key West (where Hemingway was fairly prolific) and over to Atlanta, Ga. and down to New Orleans, of course. (Laing includes a helpful map of her Spring 2011 journey at the beginning of the book). The trip heads north to Chicago, up to St. Paul, Minn., and across the northern tier of America over to Seattle and Port Angeles, Washington. Along the way, the reader learns a lot about each profiled writer and their love of alcohol.

But Echo Spring? It’s not a place, but rather, a state of mind. Or, as Laing writes: “Echo Spring. What a lovely, consoling place it sounds.”

Indeed. And the “spring” part of it sort of links the writers to water – aka “the drink.” Carver poetically wrote about “cold swift water” of his native Pacific Northwest. While one of Cheever’s most famous stories was 1964’s realist/surrealist short story “The Swimmer,” featuring character Neddy Merrill, who, like Narcissus, is caught up with himself, only to not notice the world changing around him as he swims from pool to pool.  And we know Hemingway loved water from northern Michigan, to the tip of Florida – and beyond. 

And they loved to drink alcohol. Often, copious amounts. And while a few would dry out for a bit, the urge to drink once again would return.

So, does Laing explain or make the connection between these great writers and their alcoholic indulgences? Not quite. Laing seems to be focusing on what made them human and how they coped. All were gifted – and flawed. And what is most important is what they left behind, long after they were gone.

I certainly learned a lot reading Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. And while I always admired Fitzgerald and Hemingway, I felt I got to know the other featured writers as well, coming away with heightened appreciation for their work – some of which I intend to seek out, if not re-read in the near future.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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