Our culture has a way of romanticizing the booze-addled scribe, the rakish writer quick with a quip ― Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver.
These were masters of American letters. These were also incorrigible drunks who left a trail of human wreckage and misery along with their novels, plays and poems.
The myth of the rakish drunk writer dashing off bon mots between martinis starts to teeter once you peel away the illusions and delusions of alcoholism, which two new books do with bracing clarity. Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Picador) is a lively and free-flowing study of writers who swirled to the bottom of the bottle. Focusing on six American writers ― John Berryman, Carver, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Williams ― Laing takes a sympathetic but unsparing look at the swirl of childhood trauma, adult fear and monstrous ego that drives her prodigiously talented subjects to drink ― and to write.
“There’s an addictive quality to the drinking myth itself,” Laing says by phone from Miami during her recent book tour. “You get John Cheever sitting on his porch drinking gin and reading Fitzgerald biographies and almost modeling himself on that in this maudlin way: ‘I’m one of those tortured, sensitive guys and he’s just like me and he’s drinking himself to death.’ That definitely plays a part.”
Ernest Hemingway writing at a desk while on safari in 1953. (MCT)
Laing’s book, a sort of travelogue through her subjects’ regional haunts, also touches briefly on her childhood household’s alcoholic demons. Blake Bailey, the current king of the literary biography, takes a far more personal approach: He puts his own family front and center in his new memoir, “The Splendid Things We Planned” (Norton, $25.95).
A quick look at Bailey’s previous biographical subjects suggests an interest in novelists brought low by the bottle. There’s Cheever, Charles Jackson (who wrote “The Lost Weekend,” still considered the finest novel about alcoholism) and Richard Yates (“Revolutionary Road”). Bailey’s new book helps explain his interest in the subject. The stumbling, car-totaling antagonist is his older brother, Scott, an alcoholic and addict with an insatiable appetite for self-destruction ― and for shame.
“What fascinates me about people like my brother, and Cheever and Yates and Charles Jackson, is that they’re people with secrets,” Bailey says from his home in Virginia. “They’re hiding their most essential selves from the world. Writers in particular can become very compartmentalized personalities.”
What exactly are they hiding? For Cheever and Jackson the answers were largely sexual: Both men were closeted bisexuals at a time when homosexuality was widely viewed as more of an illness than alcoholism. The diaries of Cheever, one of the great American short-story writers, reveal a man racked with terror and anxiety, an emotional and spiritual outcast.
Humanity shares an infinite variety of terror and anxiety, an infinite number of things to drink at. “They weren’t particularly popular,” Laing says of her subjects. “They weren’t particularly happy at home. They didn’t necessarily even do very well at school. But many of them had this extraordinary compensatory talent for storytelling, these escapist fictions.”
In one of her book’s most moving passages, Laing explores a poem from Berryman’s “Dream Songs” collection and distills it to five key words: “Hunger, liquor, need, pieces, wrote.” She continues: “A sense was building in me that there was a hidden relationship between the two strategies of writing and drinking and that both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire to mend it ― to give it fitness and shape, in Cheever’s phrase ― and to deny that it was so.”
In this sense, the alcoholic writer uses words in an attempt to create order from internal chaos. It rarely works. Hemingway, Berryman and Jackson all committed suicide. Yates drank himself to death. Meanwhile, Carver and Cheever wrote some of their best work after they got sober. They saw past the illusion and sought less destructive solutions to the problems that made them drink.
As Cheever put it, “To drink oneself to death was not in any way alarming, I thought, until I found that I was drinking myself to death.”
Some alcoholic writers, including Cheever and Jackson, could write about alcoholism with piercing self-awareness. Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” (1964) remains a haunting and ingeniously structured portrait of how the alcoholic mind works. Jackson’s “The Lost Weekend” (1944), later adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Ray Milland, cuts even deeper, into the swamp of shame that envelops the alcoholic who sees his own downward spiral.
“Jackson shows the double consciousness that is peculiar to an addict,” Bailey says. “On the one hand, there’s the conning public persona who’s thinking about getting the next drink or manipulating people in some way. Then there’s the audience for this conning public persona ― the inward person who simultaneously applauds the con and deplores it.”
Perhaps such insights are the salvation of the alcoholic writer. The brain, the heart and the liver fail and remind us we aren’t immortal. But great literature is, even when it was written under the most painful circumstances.
“These words matter,” Laing says. “These lives matter, and they continue to matter to people. Their struggles in their own lives were incredibly unpleasant and difficult, but what they managed to get down on the page lasts.”
By Chris Vognar
(The Dallas Morning News)
(MCT Information Services)