With the increasing popularity — and normalcy — of the 21st century cocktail craze, a number of books have been written over the past few years that attempt to examine literary stalwarts through the liquor glass. Take Phillip Greene's 2012 "To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion." Greene isolated every reference to drink that he could find in Ernest Hemingway's dense oeuvre, then organized them into anecdotes and recipes, giving both Hemingway fanatics and cocktail enthusiasts a neat little volume.
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Quite different — and refreshingly so — is Olivia Laing's new book, "The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking." Rather than lightheartedly skipping stones along the surface of the queasily common connection between great authors and their drinking habits, Laing dives deep, plummeting into some of her subjects' darkest impulses. Over the course of a meandering cross-country journey that takes the author from New York City to Port Angels, Wash., we're taken on an impeccably researched tour of the personal lives of six authors — Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman — exposing details that, while mostly sad, are almost sickeningly absorbing. The result is a multilayered biography that reads quick as fiction, and is teeming with fantastically melancholy details of the writers we thought we knew.
Thanks to Laing's engaging voice, "melancholy" is a welcome diversion from the romanticization with which these writers are usually profiled. Hemingway, for instance, is so closely affiliated with rum that there's a brand of it named for him: Papa's Pilar, inspired by the author's "appetite for adventure." It's one of many Hemingway-branded products licensed by Hemingway Ltd., the company established by his sons two decades ago. And after reading Laing's account of the author's lifelong battle with alcoholism, it's clear that Papa's Pilar's catchphrase, "Live courageously. Drink responsibly," is plainly ironic.
Through a combination of correspondence and documentary, Laing shares that Hemingway's drinking was so out of control that, after a 1956 diagnosis of inflammation of the liver and raised blood pressure and cholesterol, he was put on a "low-alcohol diet" of five ounces of whiskey and one glass of wine a day. It didn't work, and after a prescription to cut down further, the 57-year-old war veteran, who by then had been drinking wine with meals for 40 years straight, wrote: "Trouble was all my life when things were really bad I could always take a drink and right away they were much better. When you can't take the drink is different."
That reliance on alcohol — for solace and creativity, and vice-versa — is the crux of the book, which includes long and delicately detailed accounts interweaving the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (who were contemporaries in Paris in the 1920s) and Cheever and Carver (who overlapped at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the 1970s), as well as Williams and Berryman, who were parallel in age and era if not acquaintances. "What I wanted," Laing writes in the thoughtful, titular first chapter, "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."
Her quest begins at the Hotel Elysée in New York's theater district, where Tennessee Williams kept a suite for more than a decade. He died there in 1983 after choking on the plastic cap of his bottle of eyedrops. "We die as we live, disordered," Laing writes, and it's one of the first glimpses that she's not only a careful biographer but a wonderfully observant commentator.
This book is her story, too, in a way: She states plainly in the first pages that she grew up in an alcoholic family, and over the course of the book reveals just enough of her personal life that her obsession with her subjects becomes natural, almost consolatory.
Perhaps because his story is introduced first, Williams serves almost as a main character in Echo Spring, whose title is borrowed from a scene in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (Brick, the drunkard, at one point announces that he's "takin' a little short trip to Echo Spring," aka the eponymous bourbon). Though Laing obviously spent thousands of hours unearthing the details that led to her interwoven biographies, it's through Williams that she first demonstrates some of her medical research — which feels a bit oddly placed in such a narrative book, but is interesting nonetheless. Laing's plight: Learn what makes a person drink and what it does to him, and, more specifically to her subjects, what effect years of steady intoxication has on the body of literature.
The answer is drawn-out and complicated, much like these authors' lives, and Laing lays her research out in a way that's beautiful to follow. "The Trip to Echo Spring" inspires us to revisit these authors — and some specific, forgotten works — with fresh perspective.
Lauren Viera is a Chicago-based journalist who writes frequently about spirits and cocktails.
"The Trip to Echo Spring"
By Olivia Laing, Picador, 340 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun