Some of our greatest writers have been alcoholics. This raises the question: How does the relationship between booze and writing work?
Intoxication has long been considered a blessing — an essential gift of the god Dionysus, it was the lubricant for Plato’s “Symposium” and, in the poems of Rumi and Hafez, analogous to the ecstatic state of union with the divine. But as most of us know only too well, for addicts (and those in their orbits) it is an insidious, destructive, seemingly malevolent curse.
In this entertaining and informative hybrid of a book, Olivia Laing employs biography, literary analysis, the fruit of abundant clinical research, and bits and pieces of her own story to consider six American writers: Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Having done her reading, she sets out on a journey across the country — New York-New Orleans-Key West-Port Angeles — much of it by train, visiting bars, homes, grave sites and landscapes along the way, aiming “to build a kind of topographical map of alcoholism.”
Why these six? Aside from the obvious connections, Laing has discovered other surprising similarities, crossed paths, echoes of various sorts. As she illustrates, with great sensitivity and often poignant detail, these were fragile and complicated men who — in addition to writing enduring works of beauty, depth and power — lived lives of not-so-quiet desperation. The many struggles — including difficult childhoods, ubiquitous denial, failed recoveries, suicide attempts — are heartbreaking, with lies, hurt and desolation left in their wake.
While Laing deftly intertwines lives and works in unpredictable ways, the cumulative treatment of each writer is necessarily distinct. Still, at the risk of seeming Minnesota-centric, it is both puzzling and disappointing that she did not deign to step off Amtrak’s Empire Builder as it stopped in the Twin Cities. Surely Berryman’s haunts, the mighty Mississippi (after all, her favorite metaphor in this book is water) and the bridge from which he leapt, not to mention the places of Fitzgerald’s youth, deserve attention. Another weakness: Although there is no dearth of famous women alcoholic writers, Laing’s claim that their stories hit “too close to home” to include ultimately fails to satisfy.
The matter of the connection between alcohol and writing defies any neat resolution. That Cheever and Carver succeeded in becoming and staying sober is one sort of happy ending. But the gorgeous literature that these men produced, despite their “mangled lives,” is another sort, from which we benefit. Laing, in lively and intelligent fashion, makes the reader want to reread it all — the poems, plays, short stories and novels — for which she has provided new eyes.
Mark Gustafson is a writer and professor. He lives in Minneapolis.