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. If you could, by some devoted act of seeing, crane in through the window as they rattle by, you’d see the older man, the one in the passenger seat, has forgotten to put on his socks. He’s wearing penny loafers on bare feet, oblivious to the cold, like a prep school boy on a summer jaunt. In fact you could mistake him for a boy: slight, in Brooks Brothers tweeds and flannel trousers, his hair immaculately combed. Only his face betrays him, collapsed into hangdog folds.
The other man is bigger, burlier, thirty-five. Sideburns, bad teeth, a ragged sweater open at the elbow. It’s not quite nine a.m. They turn off the highway and pull into the parking lot of the state liquor store. The clerk’s out front, keys glinting in his hand. Seeing him, the man in the passenger seat yanks the door and lurches out, never mind the car’s still moving. ‘By the time I got inside the store,’ the other man will write, a long time later, ‘he was already at the checkout stand with half a gallon of Scotch.’
They drive away, passing the bottle back and forth. Within a few hours they’ll be back at the University of Iowa, swaying eloquently in front of their respective classes. Both are, as if it isn’t obvious, in deep trouble with alcohol. Both are also writers, one very well known, the other just cresting into success.
John Cheever, the older man, is the author of three novels, The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal and Bullet Park, as well as some of the most miraculous and distinctive stories ever written. He’s sixty-one. Back in May, he was rushed to hospital with dilated cardiomyopathy, testament to the almighty havoc alcohol wreaks upon the heart. After three days in the Intensive Care Unit he developed delirium tremens, becoming so violently disturbed he had to be secured with a leather straitjacket. The job at Iowa – a semester teaching at the famous Writers’ Workshop – must have seemed like a passport to a better life, though it isn’t quite panning out that way. For various reasons he’s left his family behind, living like a bachelor in a single room at the Iowa House Hotel.
Raymond Carver, the younger man, has also just joined the faculty. His room is identical to Cheever’s, and immediately beneath it. The same painting hangs on both their walls. He’s come alone too, leaving his wife and teenaged children in California. All his life he’s wanted to be a writer, and all his life he’s felt circumstance set hard against him. The drinking’s been going on for a long while, but despite its depredations he’s managed to produce two volumes of poetry and to build up quite a clutch of stories, many of them published in little magazines.
At first glance, the two men seem polar opposites. Cheever looks and sounds every inch the moneyed Wasp, though closer acquaintance reveals this to be a complex kind of subterfuge. Carver, on the other hand, is a millworker’s son from Clatskanie, Oregon, who spent years supporting his writing with menial jobs as a janitor, a stockboy and a cleaner.
They met on the evening of 30 August 1973. Cheever knocked on the door of room 240, holding out a glass and announcing, according to Jon Jackson, a student who was present at the time: ‘Pardon me. I’m John Cheever. Could I borrow some Scotch?’ Carver, elated to meet one of his heroes, stutteringly held out a vast bottle of Smirnoff. Cheever accepted a slug, though he turned his nose up at the embellishments of ice or juice.
Sensing a dual intersection of interests, the two men immediately bonded. They spent much of their time together in the Mill bar, which only served beer, talking about literature and women. Twice a week they drove out in Carver’s Falcon to the liquor store for Scotch, which they drank in Cheever’s room. ‘He and I did nothing but drink,’ Carver reported later, in the Paris Review. ‘I mean, we met our classes in a manner of speaking, but the entire time we were there … I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.’
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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