This book is a beguiling mix of biography, travelogue and memoir, that focuses on the life and work of six of America’s finest twentieth century male writers: Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, crazy mad drunks one and all. Olivia Laing works her way around their geographical locations in a long peripatetic journey across the USA, musing on the relationship between literature and booze, thinking back over the lives of her authors and the works they wrote, remembering how her own childhood was distorted by drunken adults, and refusing all the easy answers.
En route, we learn a lot about alcohol addiction, some of which is fascinating. For instance, neuroscience has discovered that the pleasure of getting drunk inscribes itself on the human brain with an especially potent mark. And so regardless of what vile behaviour and dreadful consequences drink produces, the urge to return to it in times of stress never abates. The belief that it is the font of all pleasure is so very compelling. The more a person drinks, the more withdrawal symptoms he or she will experience and so the anxiety that they seek to quench with alcohol becomes even more acute and intense when they are sober. In this way, drunks are made: alcohol so quickly becomes a vicious circle, it’s no wonder getting dry and staying dry are particular difficult things to do.
Notably, all the authors Laing examines had severely troubled childhoods, which left them with legacies of extreme anxiety. Poverty, bad parenting, hostile, aggressive families, suicides, denied sexuality, it’s pretty much a roll call of all the dreadful things that can happen in ordinary first world families. This seems to be at the root of the obsession, much more so than artistic creativity itself. In fact, that creativity might be a destabilising force is something that Laing dismisses quite vigorously. Discussing John Berryman, the academic-poet of enormous brain, huge ego and quite stupendous drinking problems, she refers scathingly to a note written about him by Saul Bellow. ‘Inspiration contained a death threat,’ Bellow writes. ‘He would, as he wrote the things he had waited and prayed for, fall apart. Drink was a stabilizer. It somewhat reduced the fatal intensity.’
This, Laing declares, ‘was a foolish thing to say. The poems weren’t killing Berryman.’ She is very clear that drink was not a stabilizing force, but a method of self-destruction: ‘Alcohol might have quietened his near omnipresent sense of panic on a drink by drink basis, but on a drink by drink basis it had also created a life of physical and moral disintegration and despair.’ It seems much more in this account a question of personality and upbringing. Alcoholics are among those people who have an ‘external locus of control’, which is to say they don’t feel personally responsible for what happens to them, but tend instead to blame circumstances or be superstitious. They also tend to be mired in denial – about what’s happening to them, why it’s happening and what ought to be done about it. And they lack the faith in others and themselves, the trust in life, to give up their addiction.
What seems to emerge, then, is the sense, faintly miraculous, that these men managed to transcend their issues with alcohol sufficiently to write the works they did. That they managed to hang onto some functioning part of self-awareness and perspicuity, not to mention awesome wordsmith skills, to create their novels, poems and plays.
In this beautifully written book, the literary analysis, the biographies and the research on alcohol are the best parts – and they come together in impressive and powerful ways. But I don’t completely agree with the dismissal of creativity as a source of trouble. To be creative may well be one of our greatest skills and our sharpest pleasures, but the need to be creative, the drive to find ways to talk about the messy, paradoxical human condition, comes from some place of damage. You don’t have to be an alcoholic to write, but the factors that push people towards alcoholism are also in part those that push them towards writing. Well, I think so, after the past year or so of research into writers and their ways. There are the occasional exceptions, like Goethe, for instance, who seemed a fairly jolly sort. But the happy, balanced writer is not the norm. Still, Laing’s subtle and careful deductions about her writers are always insightful and sensitive.
I find that the more literary a book is, and the more ambitious in scope, the more flaws it can contain and yet still be a very good experience. So if I say that the travelogue elements, while gloriously written, don’t seem to add anything to the overall value of the narrative, this isn’t a reason not to read it. Equally I found the memoir element, which makes up a very small part of the book, to be unsatisfactory. Olivia Laing begins well by locating her motivations for the whole enquiry in the experience as a child of her mother’s alcoholic (and female) partner. This is the reason why she chooses only to study male writers. But having shown this much vulnerability, she is not about to show any more. After that she bounds through her story like a good head girl, getting all the answers right in the literary quiz, showing herself to be a competent and keen traveller, having a lovely few days bonding with her mother over Carver’s grave. I rather felt for her poor old authors, suicidal, hopeless, paranoid, defecating in corridors, hallucinating, beating their partners. I understand it must be very hard to write about people who are still alive, but having gone so far, I would have preferred it myself if Laing had had the courage to show her own scars. Still, this is a fascinating and intelligent book, and a very necessary investigation into the mysterious world of creativity.