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VINE VOICEon 5 July 2014
“The Trip to Echo Springs” is part travelogue, part literary biography of 6 US writers with a central focus on their alcoholism.
Those writers are F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Olivia Laing tackles them in that order, although there is a lot of inter-crossing of their narratives around different themes, e.g. the effects of childhood trauma, and the roller-coasters of their work, love, marriage, the euphoric highs and catastrophic lows, and of course, their disastrous relationship with alcohol.
Laing draws no pat conclusions in looking at the above themes. Her central exploration is that of the relationship between alcohol and writing. Common themes include how these alcoholics both scapegoat their writing for their drinking, i.e. it leads them to places where they have to drink to get through, those intense arenas of the imagination. Another thread in all their writing lives is how drinking damages their productivity. More than one of them seems only to be able to write until midday before giving the rest of their waking hours to the bottle.
There a slight digression into the science of alcoholism and this is a fascinating short precis. Its brevity is partly explained on how little science knows on the subject, and partly because this is literary biography not scientific study.
Without a doubt, Laing captures how seductively these writers describe drinking, e.g. Hemmingway’s “lovely gin,” and she also captures it in her own descriptive passages, how John Cheever consoles himself early in the morning with “scoops of gin” from the kitchen fridge. She also brings out the parallels in these writers work between the cool reliefs of swimming, the cleansing of total immersion in fresh cold water, with a long cold drink.
But she also draws out well the horrors of the alcoholic’s mind and habits, most terribly the destructive effects on others, on partners, spouses, friends, children, anyone who gets between the drinker and the glass. It’s indeed a shock to read of Carver’s casual domestic abuse of his wife, of Tennessee Williams contemptible treatment of his loyal partner Frank ‘the horse,’ the vast sexual carelessness, the worthlessness and contempt with which others are treated. And the pitiable exhibitions they make of themselves. Think of John Berryman soiling himself at work, of public engagements and television interviews delivered in an incoherent stupor, of horrified friends yet again rescuing the manic drinker from some public and frenzied breakdown (an experience of more than one of the writers), and the sheer waste of it all. Laing is not slow to underscore the waste of life when a life is sold to drink, the wasted hours when more could have been written, the wasted opportunities in work and love. There is a romantic myth of how alcohol fuels magical writing. And it may cause or inspire the occasional hit, but how much more does it destroy?
Laing’s passport to writing on this subject is not her own alcoholism, but alcoholism in her family, in an alcoholic partner of her mother. The scenes where she describes being barricaded in her room as a girl against the howling rages of her mother’s partner are very sad. Not being an alcoholic herself lends her some objectivity, and does not strip her of any authority to discuss the subject, as some may argue. This work is structured around a journey, as Laing travels across America to various sites and shrines of these writers, to the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams, to the rivers and seas beloved by Hemmingway, for example. She picks up minutiae of dialogue, of flashes of scenery from train windows, whilst the impressions of her journey and what she is studying tumble around in her head. These create bridges between her explorations of the writers. They are always relatively brief but I did find myself being mildly frustrated by them, wanting to return to the writers’ lives. That’s because Laing’s journey is not as fascinating as the writers she describes, although it does give the book its distinctive shape.
Finally, this is great ‘gateway’ reading. I felt urged to revisit play and novels I knew, and those mentioned and described that I didn't, including Berryman’s work and his semi-auto-biographical and poignantly and tragically unfinished “Recovery.”
This is a great, memorable read on the magic of writing and the seductive but toxic power of alcohol.
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The Trip to Echo Spring : Why Writers Drink, by British author Olivia Laing, is partly a biographical exploration of 6 American writers and literary criticism of their works in reference to the influence addiction played.

It is also an analysis of the physiology of addiction, and an exploration of treatment protocols, particularly those based on the Minnesota Model (AA and 12 Step programmes)
And it gets much more personal than this; the analysing writer inserts her own journey into this critical assessment, in the guise of the story of the road trip Laing took across the States, in the footsteps of the writers she examines. Along the way, Laing, a fine writer about the natural world also inserts herself and her own family history of addiction into the mix, as what is referred to as an `Adult Child of Alcoholic Background' - her mother's partner was, whilst Laing was a child, a suffering alcoholic.

Anyone with any history of alcoholism in their family, anyone who works with alcoholics or their families, knows that alcoholism is a condition which profoundly affects the family and close friends of the alcoholic, perhaps none more profoundly than the children in an alcoholic household.

Laing is an excellent, thoughtful, reflective writer, but whilst I was utterly enamoured by an earlier book of hers, a story of another journey, one taken on foot the length of the River Ouse, with Virginia Woolf as a theme running through it, Echo Spring had me part fascinated, part frustrated, not always sure whether the sum of the disparate parts quite worked or not.

Firstly, with some experience working in this field, with all the useful research Laing cites about these particular alcoholic writers, it didn't seem to me that writers-who-are-alcoholics are much different from non-writers who are alcoholics (nor do I think Laing was particularly claiming this) Denial, a certain grandiosity, a certain hypersensitivity and terror is pretty well in the picture, writer or no.

It was however the I assume publisher's blurb which hinted at that hoary old chestnut link between the terrible pain of creativity itself and alcoholism:

"The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert"

This is the Romanticised myth of the suffering artist, which can lead to an indulgence and ostentatious acceptance of bad behaviour, which would never be allowed in bank tellers, nurses, shelf-stackers and the like. I'm actually with the pragmatic George Orwell, when he says:

"The artist is not a different kind of person, but every person is a different kind of artist"

There are artists who are not addicts. There are non-artists who are. Life contains a lot of suffering and pain (and also joy, delight and serenity) We pretty well all try to avoid pain as best we can, and develop coping strategies; some of these are helpful, some a kind of suicide.

Would these writers have written differently had they not been alcoholics? No doubt, particularly when their addictions formed the subject matter of their writings. Would they have written better, would they have written less well? Unsure. Would they have had less pained and destructive lives? Most probably. Would their families? Undoubtedly.

There were a couple of obvious omissions in Laing's book - she focuses, despite mentioning early in the book some female writers with serious alcoholism - Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Marguerite Duras, - on 6 male American writers - Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman. Personally, I was more interested in the female writers as this was a story in some ways more hidden.

Certainly, an excellent acquaintance with all those American writers would I'm sure add to the reader's appreciation of Laing's work. I am reasonably or pretty well familiar with Fitzgerald, Williams and Hemingway, have a slight familiarity with Carver, and no prior knowledge of Cheever's or Berryman's work, though I will no doubt rectify that, so I'm sure a lot of the literary criticism of the last 3 was something I had to take completely on trust.

At times, Laing's wandering off on her own musings and memories about her cross-States journey was absorbing and enjoyable, at times, I rather wanted her to stick with those writers. She is an extremely interesting, intelligent, thoughtful and observant writer. It is just, unlike that earlier book along the Ouse To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface - the slightly shaggy dog story structure (so typical of an alcoholic tangential ramble that I wondered if this was a deliberate stylistic reference) did have me, despite the beauty and precision of her writing, slightly cross, and wanting her to steer a straighter, less devious path to her destination.
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on 17 December 2013
"The Trip to Echo Spring" describes a journey across the States made by Olivia Laing, one in which she explores places significant in the lives of six alcoholic writers: "I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself."

The writers Laing discusses are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Alcohol destroyed the health and relationships of all these writers, but they also produced great works of literature, writing powerfully, if not always honestly, about the role of alcohol in their lives.

"The Trip to Echo Spring" is a readable and stimulating book which combines travelogue with literary analysis. It is also deeply depressing. Laing herself grew up in a family affected by alcoholism, so she can bring her own personal experience to bear, eloquently describing, for example, how 'it wasn't just the fights that frightened me, but rather the terrifying sense that someone was no longer inhabiting consensual reality'.

[I was given a free download of this book by the publishers for review.]
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on 18 August 2013
I read this over a three day period. It inspired me, gave me insight into alcohol abuse and its relevance to some of my favourite American writers, and it also made me want to go back to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Williams et al, and read them again with more intentness.

I'm expecting a parcel of some of those books [and a few films] any time now.

Written as a journey around the States, Laing is the best travelling companion, observant, clever and cool. We learn just enough about her life to make the observations on alcohol very poignant, and by the end of the book we like and respect her enormously.

An important work of scholarship, which is immensely readable and compassionate.

Laing is a magician...
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"The Trip to Echo Spring" written by Olivia Laing is a book that talks about the unusual connection between something we usually consider as human weakness, and on the other hand something that is timeless and gives inspiration.

It's well known that many writers and artists in general liked drinking, and that many of them deeply steeped in alcoholism - to answer the question of why is this so is not easy, whether it comes to the release of inspiration that alcohol offers, running away from reality in the form of bottle or just to be an artist is not easy and you need something to help you bear the pain.

In her book "The Trip to Echo Spring", Olivia Laing made extensive research about the work and lives of six extraordinary artists, writers whose lives have been marked by alcohol which due to it or despite it, created many literary masterpieces - John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and John Berryman.

The author, who is from UK, set herself the task to go to places where they lived and worked, she talked to people who knew them, read their personal their personal belongings - journals and letters, unraveling the mystery and connection of their creativity and their weaknesses.
The sad truth is that two of six of them were killed by alcohol, while two of them made a suicide, forever hiding the secret of whether alcohol was a consequence or cause of their misery.

In her book, like in cocktail, she mixed lot of things - except presenting some biographical elements about the authors that are unknown to the wider public, she critically talks about the psychology of alcoholics and how alcohol affects the man and his abilities.
Laing has personal experience, she grew up in family where alcohol was not foreign and due to that she speaks openly and without restraint - in almost journalistic style she analyzes their lives, what they had in common, some common cause or life setting that led them to the same addiction and for most of them to the same sad end of their life.

"The Trip to Echo Spring" is an unusually exciting book for non-fiction genre that manages to give a link between the ingenious writers, their works and bottle they shared. And while her writing is strong, often critical and uncompromising, the book she created is full of empathy.
Therefore this is a very good book to be read in these cold days, while the winter is outdoors, to keep you warm instead of what is the topic of this book.
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on 5 March 2016
A pointless book all dressed up and supported by the Lottery, which makes me wonder whether it was a free trip round the USA.
The authoress has done extensive research into six writers, who were alcoholics and tries to explain why they drank.
Her trips to the writers' home territory is to invoke something, mood, sentiment whatever, to connect with their alcohol problem.
She uses her research e.g. Tennessee Williams links with St Louis and New Orleans and tries to splice it with her time spent there.
It appears she just wanted to travel and needed an excuse, like a bucket list.
Mine included a trip to Lubbock, Texas, birthplace of Buddy Holly and the studio at Big Sur, Ca., of Henry Miller whom I knew in Paris in the 60s. The trips were personal and I certainly would not want to bore a reader with them.
I bought this book as I had read the featured writers' works and am an alcoholic. I have given long ago up trying to explain the reasons for my alcoholism to a non-alcoholic. Neither does the author explain the reasons. So it fails...badly.
She states alcoholism is generic which I strongly disagree with. Tennessee's brother Dakin and sister Rose were not alcoholics. No scientific evidence has proved this I have only heard one person in AA blame his parents for his alcoholism (over 3,000 meetings)
Granted a child will drink later in life if he/she is brought up in an alcoholic environment but this a long way from an inherent gene.
The book is badly edited (Publ: Cannongate). AA's Twelve Steps feature early on when Ms Laing attends an AA meeting.
Why print them in full?
They make no sense to a stranger to AA. They are reprinted yet again in the references at the back with no reference to their relevance.
Olivia Laing's book is a similar construction to Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful., where the author uses his limited imagination to reconstruct scenes from the struggling lives of some of the great jazz men. A white UK writer can think like Bud Powell did. I don't think so Geoffy boy. Arrogance indeed
Yet at least Laing writes with humility which is the backbone of the Twelve Steps.
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on 9 January 2015
This book will captivate everyone trying to understand why people drink. You don't need to be an avid fan of the six authors Laing examines: I know the works of only one of them well with others ranging from casual acquaintance to obscurity. It shows you the link between creativity and alcohol: how drink sometimes inspired and more often damaged the artists' lives. The tragedy is that around the world millions of ordinary people sink in alcoholism without the redeeming power of genius. The book is meticulously researched, with the author beautifully combining medical descriptions, biographical material, journalistic observation and personal history. Highly recommended.
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on 14 February 2015
Alcohol both fueled the writing and ultimately destroyed the writers --- Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Laing takes a train trip across the USA to see the locales in which these writers lived and worked and to understand the demons that drove them to drink. The writer's background in medical matters provides a fascinating insight into the effects of alcohol on the human body ---a cautionary tale. Echo Spring, by the way, is the name of cheap rotgut.
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on 29 September 2013
Olivia Laing's book is part memoir, part lit crit, part travelogue, and all wonderful. Clear-eyed, beautifully observed and warm, it sheds light on old demons and has driven me back to the original works. I have hugely enjoyed her company during this trip, and will be bereft to be without her company in the days ahead. If you're a fan of any of the writers she focuses on, it is not to be missed.
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on 20 October 2015
Well written with plenty of anecdotes... Booze and writers and why some of our best took to the bottle...A sympathetic look at tortured souls and how alcohol waeved its way through their creative lives...
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