Make us your home page
Instagram

Book club fare: Raise a glass for a book about drinking

BOOK: Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family, but didn't recognize the nature of her predicament until the age of 17, when she read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. In the play Brick, the alcoholic son of Big Daddy, has a broken foot, and asks his father to pass him his crutches because "I'm takin' a little short trip to Echo Spring" — the liquor cabinet that contains that brand of bourbon. Reading the play "was the first time I found the behavior I'd grown up amid not only named and delineated but actively confronted," Laing writes.

Laing wondered if other writers who drank might have something to teach her about the allure of alcohol, so she decided to visit the familiar haunts of six of them — John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. Her report on the odyssey — The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (Picador, 2013) — contains astute observations about addiction. She explains, for example, how Cheever's famous short story, The Swimmer, captures "the full arc of an alcoholic's life." She recognizes that the first glass of champagne Williams ever tasted left him feeling "very elated" because it provided a release from the "process of thought," which he considered "a terrifyingly complex mystery of human life."

All the writers she investigates consumed astonishing quantities of alcohol, which contributed to damaged friendships, chronic insomnia, liver damage and humiliation, but amazingly did not destroy their ability to produce great literature. In fact, four of the six American winners of the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholics, Laing reports.

WHY READ? Laing provides a remarkably cogent explanation of alcohol's effects on the brain and emotions. In brief, alcohol quells some of the most disturbing emotions the mind produces. Before a social gathering, for example, a young Cheever drank "four fingers" of gin neat, and discovered that the company suddenly "was brilliant, chatty and urbane and so was I." Williams described how drinking wine makes one feel "as if a new kind of blood had been transfused into your arteries, a blood that swept away all anxiety and all tension for a while, and for a while is the stuff that dreams are made of."

The problem begins when the brain adapts to the effects of alcohol, triggering addiction, which requires the drinker to drink more to get the same effect. Laing provides a glossary of the resulting behaviors, such as denial ("the keynote of the alcoholic personality"), minimizing ("the pervasive alcoholic tendency to pretend their drinking, their disasters, are ordinary, unexceptional, barely worth the effort of examination"), self-pity ("the belief that one is exceptional and suffers more than others"). She also reports on a study that found a direct correlation between childhood trauma, such as parental addiction, sexual abuse and violence, and the chances of the child developing an addiction in adulthood.

MAKE IT: Although alcoholics tend to be undiscriminating when it comes to drinking (wine, beer, bourbon, vodka … whatever), Laing's book detects a river of bourbon flowing through the lives of the writers. Carver, for example, tried to wean himself from alcohol by drinking "hummers" — progressively weaker shots of rotgut bourbon and water consumed every three hours for three days. The poet John Berryman would drink anything, but favored bourbon. The Echo Spring bourbon that Brick craves in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof actually exists, and Williams also mentions Kentucky Straight Bourbon in The Glass Menagerie.

Though bourbon mixes well with a seemingly infinite variety of liquids (fruit juices, liqueurs, carbonated beverages) and solids (vanilla beans, mint leaves, cucumber), a proper toast to the alcoholic mind described in The Trip to Echo Spring should include bitters and something muddled — in other words, a classic Old Fashioned.

By Tom Valeo, special to the Times

Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions, send an email to features@tampabay.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

By Olivia Laing

Picador, 352 pages, $26

>>EASY

Old Fashioned

1 sugar cube, or a teaspoon of sugar

2 or 3 dashes of Angostura bitters

2 semicircular slices of orange

2 maraschino cherries

3 ounces of bourbon

Fill a glass with ice cubes and set aside.

In a tall bartender's mixing glass combine sugar and bitters; mix. Add 1 orange slice and 1 cherry, and crush with a muddler or the back of a spoon.

Add the bourbon and stir vigorously until ingredients are mixed.

Strain into glass with ice cubes. Garnish with the other cherry and orange slice.

Serves 1.

Source: Webtender.com

Book club fare: Raise a glass for a book about drinking 12/26/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 26, 2013 3:20pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Glen Campbell's wife Kim discusses challenges, guilt caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, others face

    Life Times

    If there's one thing Kim Campbell would change about caregiving for Alzheimer's patients, it's the attitude so many of us have toward transferring a loved one from home to a long-term care facility. According to Campbell, it's often the most kind, loving decision you can make. It's not a sign of failure, but one of …

    Kim Campbell, wife of country music legend Glen Campbell, is acknowledged by those attending the free event where she shared the story of her personal journey with Alzheimer???‚??„?s disease and the struggles she faced caring for her husband on Friday (5/26/17) at the Suncoast Hospice's Empath Health Service Center in Clearwater. Empath Choices for Care, a member of Empath Health, and Arden Courts Memory Care hosted the free event where Kim shared her story to help others understand the early stages, how the disease changes lives, the challenges families face and the role of caregiver.
  2. What happened when I took my dad to a Pitbull concert

    Music & Concerts

    TAMPA — "So, you know how you like Pitbull?" I asked my dad. "We can see him."

    Selfie of Divya Kumar and Anand Kumar at Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias concert.
  3. Tampa City Council votes to accept travel invitation from Cuban ambassador

    Blogs

    The invitation came to Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin in a June 9 letter from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.

    The Tampa City Council voted 6-0, with Frank Reddick out of the room, to respond to a travel invitation from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 25

    Events

    St. Pete Pride Festival: The daytime festival covers Central Avenue's Grand Central District with more than 350 vendors, multiple stages, live music, art and food. 9 a.m., Grand Central District, 2429 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 342-0084.

    Kristen Whalen poses for a photo before the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg last year. It's that time of year again, so check with us for your planning purposes. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2016)]
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 24

    Events

    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth …

    Thousands line the streets of Central Ave. during the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.  [Saturday, June 25, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]