The Trip to Echo Spring, by Olivia Laing
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink
For To the River her motivation was a failed love affair, or rather a relationship killed off by a geographical stalemate; neither she not her boyfriend was prepared to relocate. This time she feels that, having grown up in a household traumatised by the alcoholic woman who moved in with her mother after Laing’s father had abandoned them when Laing was only four, she knows all about heavy drinking. Laing has had first-hand experience of what is now recognised as a disease. But this does not make her an authority on the subject, and it is not clear why she attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on the Upper West Side, nor why she writes that “it is necessary first to know what a shot of Smirnoff or Scotch does to the human body. Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is both an intoxicant and a central nervous depressant . . .”
The opening sentence leaves little to chance. “Here’s a thing. Iowa City, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles makes noses run.” John Cheever and Raymond Carver are about to undertake some urgent early-morning shopping at a liquor store. Laing appears to miss the desperation of the episode. Elsewhere she refers to Carver having pulled himself “out of a self-made hell; a real pigsty of a life”. The use of “pigsty” is outrageous. Such stylistic glibness often surfaces, such as when she describes John Cheever as “the small, immaculately dishevelled Chekhov of the Suburbs”.
The six writers she has chosen provide her with a conveniently sweeping swathe across the United States. From Cheever’s New York she travels by train to New Orleans, so beloved by its adopted son Tennessee Williams. This is a 30-hour journey through some incredible landscape, including that of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. How she could make it so dull defies any reasoning. Jonathan Raban, an instinctive observer with a feel for the eloquence of the American landscape and for the ordinary, could have made this project soar. Instead, Laing meanders through anecdotal material featuring F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway (cue a synopsis of The Great Gatsby), followed by Laing’s frequent summary reports: “But Fitzgerald was too unanchored to be able to tolerate his chosen pace of life. For years, he and Zelda had been reeling hectically around the globe, ricocheting from New York to St Paul, to Great Neck, to Antibes and Juan-les-Pins” – hardly the globe – “trailing wreckage in their wake.”