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The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing; Picador (337 pages, $26). It is near-felonious understatement to observe that the idea for Olivia Laing’s superb new book is hardly new. It has been a matter of many decades’ inquiry to wonder, as Laing puts it, “why writers drink and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself. John Cheever and Raymond Carver are hardly the only writers whose lives were made desolate by alcohol. Alongside them were Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Hart Crane, John Berryman, Jack London, Elizabeth Bishop, Raymond Chandler – the list staggers on.” (In a previous century, who could possibly forget Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire?)

“As Lewis Hyde observes in his essay ‘Alcohol and Poetry,’ ‘four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves.’  ”

If it would be a fool’s errand to pound fists on the table and adamantly maintain the novelty of what Olivia Laing has done in this indispensable book, I think it might be almost as foolish to deny that this seems to be the best it’s ever been done.

Her modus operandi here is this: She takes her title from a line in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” where Brick is asked by his father Big Daddy why he seems to be walking out of a conversation. “I’m taking a little short trip to Echo Spring,” Brick replies which, says Laing, is “nothing more than a nickname for a liquor cabinet, drawn from the brand of bourbon it contained.”

She concentrates on six great alcoholic American writers and their lives and habitats: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Her approach is as much geographic as literary and psychoanalytical.

Laing is a British writer and critic with alcoholics all through her own family, which is why the subject presented itself to her in the first place. The story she’s telling us is about alcoholics who have put their faith in stories and in literature as a kind of primal salve. A terrific book.

– Jeff Simon