Ms. Laing starts with Cheever and Carver at a liquor store before 9 a.m. on a frozen day in Iowa City, where they were teaching, in 1973. Cheever, 61 at the time, is “wearing penny loafers on bare feet, oblivious to the cold, like a prep school boy on a summer jaunt.” Soon we’re effortlessly moved to an evaluation of Cheever’s potent, discombobulating story “The Swimmer,” in which, as Ms. Laing puts it, “time is slopping around like gin in a glass.”
It does some slopping, too, in this book, which moves between the lives of its subjects in a frequent but not jarring way. (The book’s title refers to a line in Williams’s play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” when a character calls a visit to the liquor cabinet “a little short trip to Echo Spring,” Echo Spring being a brand of bourbon.)
“I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them,” Ms. Laing writes early on. “More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” Those are complex, even impossible questions, and it’s a credit to Ms. Laing’s book that it succeeds despite inevitably finding more mystery and contradiction than answers.
Cheever and Williams first used alcohol “to quell,” Ms. Laing writes, “acute social anxiety.” It worked, until it didn’t. Hemingway got at drink’s more painkilling effect in a letter to a friend: “Trouble was all my life when things were really bad I could always take a drink and right away they were much better.”
This is not an experience unique to great writers. For every pickled poet, there are a thousand troubled souls who haven’t read a book in years but feel the need for a stiff one at sundown, or earlier. So what if anything makes the alcoholism of writers worth studying as a separate category?
Perhaps only their eloquent view of the condition. Berryman’s “The Dream Songs,” his most famous work, is a series of poems narrated by a drinker named Henry, who Ms. Laing calls “a man in a confession booth, hungry for solace of all kinds, berating, like Job, a God he can’t quite admit either to or in.” Cheever’s 1977 novel “Falconer,” finished after its author finally got sober, features a Cheever-like character named Farragut who endures prison before escaping and experiencing a “Lazarus-like return to life,” as Ms. Laing describes it. Her reading of the novel is one of her finest moments. She writes: “The act of liberating Farragut seemed to ripple back into Cheever’s own life, buoying him up even as he set it down. It was a confirmation and testament of his own liberation, but also a way of getting ahead of himself, of creating a fantasy he could then, in some magical way, be braced by; even inhabit.”
Berryman’s last years, grippingly recounted here, were much starker. He lurched to and from rehab, eventually hurling himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. (“His body was identified by a blank check in his pocket and the name on his broken glasses.”)
Ms. Laing’s book sends you scrambling for others; in this case, not just the primary material — “The Dream Songs,” Cheever’s stories and diaries, the fiction of Hemingway and Fitzgerald — but more obscure fare, like Berryman’s letters to his mother or “Poets in Their Youth,” a memoir by Eileen Simpson, Berryman’s first wife.
But even the best stretches of Ms. Laing’s book are interrupted by problematic, if not fatal, authorial choices. She was partly inspired by the drinking problem of Diana, her mother’s partner when Ms. Laing was a child. It’s no reader’s place to judge the effect of that alcoholism on Ms. Laing — she says it had “long-reaching consequences in the relationships of my adult life,” and surely it did — but on the page, its import simply doesn’t come alive.
Nor is it entirely satisfying that Ms. Laing, who is British, chose to travel by train to “plot the course of some of these restless lives by way of a physical journey across America.” Ms. Laing never explains why the focus is entirely on the United States, but she’s clearly taken with these particular writers and romanticizes the vast American landscape as a place made for rumination. Her journey never feels as cheap as a gimmick, and the prose doesn’t suffer in dispatches from stops like Key West, Fla., and New Orleans. But it’s unclear why we need to hear of stray conversations among other train passengers, or that Ms. Laing spent a night’s sleep in New York dreaming of “a cat with raspberries tangled in its fur.”
What lingers is the complexity of the problems that dominated these authors’ life and work, and how hard it is precisely to place alcohol in that emotional matrix, even if its physical effects became devastatingly clear. The two suicides in Ms. Laing’s book — Berryman and Hemingway — were the sons of fathers who had killed themselves. Carver and Cheever each dried out and died of cancer, Carver at 50. Williams’s death at 71 was drug related, and Fitzgerald suffered a fatal heart attack at 44. Asked by The Paris Review in 1983 if alcohol was “in any way an inspiration,” Carver responded: “My God, no! I hope I’ve made that clear.”