or glamorous women. I have a thing
for this cold swift water.
Just looking at it makes my blood run
and my skin tingle.
The word trip also seemed important. Many alcoholics, including the writers I was interested in, have been relentless travellers, driven like uneasy spirits across their own nations and into the other countries of this world. Like Cheever, I had a notion that it might be possible to plot the course of some of these restless lives by way of a physical journey across America. Over the next few weeks, I planned to take what is known in AA circles as a geographical, a footloose journey across the country, first south, through New York, New Orleans and Key West, and then north-west, via St. Paul, the site of John Berryman’s ill-fated recovery, and on to the rivers and creeks of Port Angeles, where Raymond Carver spent his last, exultant years.
Looked at on a map, this itinerary seems haphazard, even a little masochistic, particularly since I’d resolved to travel largely by train. Like many things to do with the subject, though, its real meaning was encoded. Each of these locations had served as a way station or staging post in which the successive phases of alcohol addiction had been acted out. By travelling through them in sequence, I thought it might be possible to build a kind of topographical map of alcoholism, tracing its developing contours from the pleasures of intoxication through to the gruelling realities of the drying-out process. And as I worked across the country, passing back and forth between books and lives, I hoped I might come closer to understanding what alcohol addiction means, or at least to finding out what those who struggled with and were sometimes destroyed by it thought alcohol had meant for them.
The first of the cities was fast approaching. While I’d been gazing out of the window, the seatbelt sign had switched to green. I fumbled for the pin and turned again to the glass. Outside, the ground was rising swiftly through the colourless miles of air. Now I could see Long Island, and beyond the ruffled waters the runways of JFK. Silhouetted behind it were the skyscrapers of Manhattan, rising like iron filings into the pale sky. ‘These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light,’ John Cheever once wrote wistfully about the city he most loved. It did indeed seem to shine, an island citadel bounded by water, the Atlantic flashing pewter as we hedged in above the waves.
Excerpted from The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing. Copyright © 2013 by Olivia Laing. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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