The boozer’s life is one of low self-esteem and squalid self-denial. It was memorably evoked by Charles Jackson in his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend; having hocked his typewriter for a quart of rye, the writer Don Birnam spends his lost weekend in a New York psychiatric ward, with a fractured skull. Where did he get that? The previous night’s drinking is remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and guilt. Of course, the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness is familiar to most of us, even if the hangover seems a cruel price to pay.
Olivia Laing, in her study of six alcoholic American writers, The Trip to Echo Spring (the title is taken from a Tennessee Williams play), demonstrates that one hardly need drink every day to be alcoholic. Those of us who indulge in self-destructive benders with stretches of sobriety in between may not think of ourselves as alcoholic at all. Yet alcohol was the vexing devil that crept up insidiously on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. The day Hemingway decided to nurse his thumping head with a hair (or a tuft, in Cyril Connolly’s knowing phrase) of the dog that bit him was the day the unvarnished truth had come home: liquor had got him well and truly licked.
Drinking may be a disease for which sobriety is the only cure, yet it impelled Tennessee Williams to gothic flights of the imagination and encouraged witty conversation (what James Joyce called ‘tighteousness’). Even with his tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror the morning after, Williams was reluctant to give up his beloved brandy Alexanders. Raymond Carver was another who drank as though immune from hangovers. The more Carver drank, in fact, the further he seemed to be removed from the likelihood of any sort of headache or twinge of conscience.
Right to the end of his life, Hemingway too had insisted on alcohol’s ‘essential beneficence’ and ability to uplift and even nourish. His wild bouts of drinking are attributed here (not implausibly) to childhood experiences of abandonment and loneliness following his father’s suicide by gunshot in 1928. Three decades later, dreadfully, Hemingway took his own life also by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (‘The poor son-of-a-bitch blew his fucking head off’, Laing quotes Cheever as saying.)
Like all alcoholics, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a mess of self-pity, mendaciousness and gleeful irresponsibility. ‘The Crack Up’, his magnificent essay on the alcoholic heebie-jeebies, anticipated by 70 years the vogue for confessional memoirs. The therapist’s couch occasionally showed in the writing, yet rarely had the deleterious effects of alcohol been so pitilessly analysed. By the time Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the age of 44 he had the wandering, glazed eye of the hardened spirit-abuser.
Laing, a British writer in her mid-thirties, admits to a family history of alcoholism; The Trip to Echo Spring is, among other things, her attempt to understand the causes of this ‘most slippery of diseases’. One might say that alcoholism is a chemical misfortune — a potential you are born with. It tends to run in families. Most of the writers under Laing’s sympathetic scrutiny had an alcohol-addicted relative somewhere down the line. No proof is adduced by her to show that abstention was the key to the writers’ recovery (or, for that matter, that they could never go back to ‘social drinking’). Yet sobriety was most probably their safest course.
In pages of great lyric beauty, Laing travels in the footsteps of Cheever and company across America from New York to New Orleans. At times the writing shows a Hemingway influence (‘In Alabama the earth was red and there was wisteria in the trees’); at others, a demotic Raymond Carver cut (‘The hell with it’). The book, a hybrid of travel and literary criticism, is always engaging to read, as it casts a humane eye on the accidents, illness, social impairment and other damage caused by drink to the poet Berryman in particular, whose outraged innards and pale, wayworn face showed the horror of his multi-day benders and the moaning after the night before.
I must say the book provoked a twinge of recognition in me. I grew up in south London in a house next door to Professor Griffith Edwards, a world authority on alcoholism. In the same terrace was a teetotal army officer who, in gratitude for AA’s help in his recovery, chose to call his dog Sober. His public admission to alcoholism (‘Here, Sober!’) was rare back then, in the early 1970s, but not so unusual today — when celebrity footballers and pop stars routinely declare themselves powerless over booze. Blanche Dubois could have told any one of us that misery treads fast on the heels of joy.