Olivia Laing is an accomplished British writer who several years ago came to the U.S. because she wanted “. . . time to think, and what [she] wanted to think about was alcohol.” More specifically, she was interested in six American writers, all men, all alcoholics. She knew that many more writers, and, indeed, many more people all over the world, were alcoholics, but she decided to focus on six male American writers who had “. . . that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. Each was tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.” (She excluded women writers for personal reasons.)
The six writers are John Cheever and Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. As she points out, there are other alcoholic writers she might have included, and among them are William Faulkner, Jean Rhys, Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Jack London, and Elizabeth Bishop. Quoting Lewis Hyde, she reminds us that “’four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually kill themselves.’”
But Laing has chosen her six, and to them she will remain faithful. She begins with Cheever and Carver when they were “teaching” at Iowa and drinking themselves silly everyday, talking about women and decidedly not writing.
After that beginning, Laing’s book consists of long passages of biography and literary analysis, insightful meditations on art and alcoholism as she travels, by train, from New York to New Orleans to the Pacific Northwest, and medical and psychological inquiry into the causes and effects of consuming large quantities of alcohol over long periods of time. She does not write about these writers and their alcoholism in an effort to explicate “. . . exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour (sic) of alcoholic writers can be. Her aim was “. . . to discover how each of these men – and, along the way, some of the many others who’d suffered from the disease – experienced and thought about their addiction.”
By the way, Laing’s title is taken from Williams’ Cat on a Hot, Tin Roof. When Big Daddy asks Brick where he is going, Brick answers, ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring,’ the liquor cabinet.
Though fascinating, much of this book is almost physically difficult to read. Raymond Carver bashing his wife’s head on the sidewalk, John Cheever forcing a male student into an unwanted sexual relationship, Scott Fitzgerald cracking up, Tennessee Williams’ homosexual infidelity to his devoted lover, Frank, Ernest Hemingway destroying his health and talent while continuing to sing the praises of drink, the drunken John Berryman losing all self control and fouling his pants in public.
The book is wonderfully written, however, and Laing has a genius for the appropriate metaphor and for appropriate pacing and transition. If you need any proof that alcoholism destroys lives and talents, you will find it gorgeously on display in this book. The poetry, as Wilfred Owen said in another context, is in the pity.