What can we learn from the sodden stories of six gifted but alcoholic writers? Much—and maybe not enough.
Freelance journalist Laing, (To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, 2011), who has a history of alcoholism in her own family, provides an enlightening look at the struggles of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver—six men (she explains why she included no women) whose careers and lives were shaken and shortened by their addiction to alcohol. She notes that she selected them, among other things, because their lives intersected in places. Laing, who lives in England, decided to visit key sites in these writers’ lives and to do so, as much as possible, by train. Throughout, she comments—sometimes quite eloquently—about the scenery in and outside her rail car. Laing also evinces great familiarity with the principal texts of her writers, including their published and unpublished journals, letters and other relevant documents. She also instructs us about the effects of alcohol on the brain (including the devastating destruction of memory) and the rest of the body, as well as the social behavior of heavy drinkers, and she sketches the history and strategies of Alcoholics Anonymous and of other ways to battle the disease. Since we know the sorry fates of all these writers, there is an almost unbearable poignancy about Laing’s journey to sites of meltdowns and suicides. She wanders into bars the writers had frequented, looks at their residences in New York, New Orleans, Key West, Port Angeles and elsewhere, and continually tries to imagine the men in these settings. She ends in kind of a hard place: with the axiomatic message that alcoholics need to take charge of their lives and just stop. These six guys didn’t find that too easy.
A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing.