Why Writers Drink

“An alcoholic may be said in fact to lead two lives, one concealed beneath the other as a subterranean river snakes beneath a road. There is the life of the surface – the cover story, so to speak – and then there is the life of the addict, in which the priority is always to secure another drink.”

Nothing remarkable about this, you might think, except that it mirrors almost exactly what Ricardo Piglia writes about the structure of the short story: that the outer, surface narrative, always contains and conceals a parallel interior story. This is interesting because it poses the extraordinary thesis that a human life is always about (at least) two narratives, the overt and visible, and the covert or hidden. In the case of the addict, the duality of these narratives is especially extreme, because the parallel interior or subterranean story – even if initially concealed or invisible – eventually breaks out into awful visibility, affecting all those in the immediate vicinity.

Echo SpringEven if one takes the subtitle with a pinch of salt, Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, proves a fascinating read, exploring the relationship of six famously bibulous American writers with the bottle. The lives of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman are put under the microscope and – unsurprisingly – a lot of very messy stuff comes into view. However the book is beautifully written, and displays a profound understanding of both her subject matter and her subjects. Perhaps of all these cases, Fitzgerald’s was the greatest waste, while Berryman, with his astonishing grandiosity, provided the darkest farce. Of Berryman’s final years. Laing writes:

“That’s what alcoholism does to a writer. You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an excellently researched book on a difficult topic. It is filled with fascinating digressions and integrates the author’s findings with a journey she herself undertakes across the United States in pursuit of her subjects’ homes and histories.

2 Comments on “Why Writers Drink

  1. Hia Richard, hope you’re OK. I enjoyed your snippets in Poetry Review… on the subject of writers and drink, I would like to recommend a slim volume by John Sutherland called Last Drink to LA. He describes it as “just some thinking about drinking” and as an ex-dipso myself I found myself empathising with his take on the subject. Best wishes, Lloyd Jones

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    • Dear Lloyd: Please forgive the nearly seven years delay in responding! I finally caught up with John Sutherland’s book last year, and only just now remembered that it was you who first recommended it. As an AA memoir, I found it refreshingly disrespectful though a tad self-congratulatory. I enjoyed much of his story – part drunkalogue, part reflection on how alcoholism and AA work – but with a coda in which the 75 year old Sutherland smugly justifies his switch from academia to ‘commercial’ hackery, and eulogises a ‘late-life jolt’ in which, with bohemian bravura, he moves to Soho, settles down with another woman whom he marries (after 35 years with the woman who bore his children and who put up with decades of his dipsomania). Not sure quite how I felt about the coda. He also discusses his son’s addiction, recovery (and recent relapse) which didn’t feel quite right. Fairly indiscreet about elements of AA, including anonymity of a well-known Hollywood actor (though dead) whose name he discloses. Very funny in parts, including his rock bottom, in which he wakes up in bed with a gay man whose penis has been removed, leaving only a stump, which Sutherland’s hand grazes over in the bleary morning, leaving him desolate enough to be primed for a moment of clarity. In the coda he says this is the part of his memoir that most people remember above all else and that he now regrets putting it in, saying it was the kind of detail he might have reserved for private consumption or an AA share. This, apart from anything else, displays Bad Faith, though interesting in itself that he should wish to retract the story. (Sutherland says he is not gay, but was ‘interfered with’ as a child during a blackberry-picking excursion, and although he does not say how this has affected him psychologically, appears to be suggesting that the event had a lasting effect and in some way contributed towards his later alcoholism). Absorbing story, and thanks form pointing me towards it. Am currently struggling through Leslie Jamison’s epic ‘The Recovering’ and will probably blog about that in due course. All best, Richard.

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