The Bottle and the Damage Done
Why is alcoholism the American literary disease?
The Trip to Echo Spring:
On Writers and Drinking
by Olivia Laing
$26.00 List Price
As a young literatus in training, I got myself early and often to the Lion’s Head, a legendary and now-extinct writers’ bar on Sheridan Square. Lined with the framed covers of books by its denizens, it offered an atmosphere of boozy bonhomie and the opportunity for literary stargazing of a special sort. (Hey, I’m urinating right next to Fred Exley!) And it didn’t take long before I was told that gin mill’s trademark anecdote: A nonscribbling civilian drops into the Lion’s Head for a couple of beers. After taking in the scene for a while, he remarks to the guy on the barstool next to him, “There sure are a lot of writers here with drinking problems.”This elicits the swift reply: “Wrong. There are a lot of drinkers here with writing problems.”
The same conundrum informs Olivia Laing’s heartfelt and melancholy alcoholic travelogue: Why, in America especially, are the production of literature and the consumption of destructive quantities of alcohol so intimately intertwined? Which came first, the bottle or the typewriter? While this condition has abated quite a bit in our more abstemious time (it’s been many years since I’ve seen anyone come back loaded from a publishing lunch), for much of the twentieth century, literary distinction and alcoholism were strongly linked. An oft-cited fact is that five of the first six American Nobel Prize winners—Lewis, O’Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—were alcoholics, and the list of other notable writers who suffered from the disease would more or less fill the allotted word count of this review. Laing, a British editor and critic,