If I stopped a minute, I could picture each of them in turn. I saw Fitzgerald in a Guards tie, his blond hair slicked back, quietly certain about the merits of The Great Gatsby: a kind man, when he wasn’t whisking you into a waltz or boiling your watch up in a pot of soup. Ernest Hemingway I always pictured at the helm of a boat, or out hunting in the clean upland air, entirely focused on the task at hand. And then later, at his desk in glasses, making up the Michigan of the Nick Adams stories, making up corridas and cities, trout streams and battlefields, a world you can almost smell.
Tennessee Williams I saw in Ray-Bans and safari shorts, sitting unobtrusively at the rehearsal of one of his own plays: A Streetcar Named Desire, say, or Suddenly Last Summer. It’s not locked yet, and so he fixes sections on demand, braying his donkey’s laugh at all the saddest lines. Cheever I liked to think of riding a bicycle, a habit he took up late in life, and Carver I always imagined with a cigarette, big-shouldered but walking softly. And then there was John Berryman, the donnish poet and professor, light gleaming on his glasses, his beard enormous, standing in front of a class at Princeton or the University of Minnesota, reading Lycidas and making the whole room see how marvellous it was.
There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be. That wasn’t my intention. What I wanted 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. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge.
As to the origins of my interest, I might as well admit I grew up in an alcoholic family myself. Between the ages of eight and eleven I lived in a house under the rule of alcohol, and the effects of that period have stayed with me ever since. Reading Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at seventeen was the first time I found the behaviour I’d grown up amid not only named and delineated but actively confronted. From that moment on I was preoccupied by what writers had to say about alcohol and its effects. If I had any hope of making sense of alcoholics – and my life as an adult seemed just as full of them – it would be by investigating the residue they’d left behind in books.
There was a line from Cat in particular that had stayed with me for years. Brick, the drunkard, has been summoned by his father. Big Daddy is on a talking jag and after a while Brick asks for his crutch. ‘Where you goin’?’ Big Daddy asks, and Brick replies: ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.’ Physically, Echo Spring is nothing more than a nickname for a liquor cabinet, drawn from the brand of bourbon it contains. Symbolically, though, it refers to something quite different: perhaps to the attainment of silence, or to the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.
Echo Spring. What a lovely, consoling place it sounds. It set off another echo, too. By coincidence or otherwise most of these men shared a deep, enriching love for water. John Cheever and Tennessee Williams were passionate, even fanatical swimmers, while Hemingway and Fitzgerald shared an abiding fondness for the sea. In Raymond Carver’s case, his relationship with water – particularly those freezing bottle-green trout streams that tumble out of the mountains above Port Angeles – would eventually come in some deep way to replace his toxic need for alcohol. In one of his late, wide-open poems, he wrote:
I love them the way some men love horses
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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