writing and the bottle


The reasons why these particular writers drank, or more precisely why they became dependent on alcohol, were inter alia weak, suicidal or resentful fathers (when Cheever was conceived his father’s first act was to invite the local abortionist to dinner), suffocating mothers, class anxiety, sexual anxiety (Cheever endured the dual burden of passing for both bourgeois and heterosexual), shyness, guilt, pram-in-the-hall pressures, disastrous role models (Dylan Thomas in the case of Berryman, who trailed his bad mentor through New York’s traditional stations of dissolution, the White Horse, the Chelsea Hotel; Hart Crane, the alcoholic poet and suicide, in the case of Williams), and a shared genius for self-sabotage. None of them drank to improve his writing, but addiction and recovery became for some an important theme, something to chronicle, and, moreover, had a subterranean but profound impact on their literary styles. Laing is acute about the warping impact alcoholism has on memory, a writer’s major resource. Reading Cheever, for example, she identifies “a persistent attribute of his work: a kind of uncanniness produced by radical disruptions of space and time”. Excess drinking might have contributed special effects to Cheever’s prose, but Laing refuses to romanticize this given the damage done. Similarly, after waxing lyrical about the landscape of Port Angeles, Washington, and empathizing with Carver’s view of Morse Creek as a “holy place”, she adds: “Watching water work through rock, you might come to a kind of accommodation with the fact that you’d once smashed your wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man”. This movement between heady rhetorical inflation and sobering deflation is felt throughout the book, beginning with its florid title – Echo Spring is the wistful pet name that the drunkard Brick, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, gives to his liquor cabinet – which is soon undercut by the baldly explanatory subtitle.

more from Paul Quinn at the TLS here.