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 email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.