A personal reflection sparked by Olivia Laing’s excellent 2013 book The Trip to Echo Spring.
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Every alcoholic in recovery has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same dark punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.
Every alcoholic in recovery is living a story with a weird ending, if they remain in recovery. It is that two-word pair there, “in recovery,” that provides the surprise, the weirdness, a period of life as surprising to behold as some of the antics, the many bizarre actions and activities and inactions and inactivities that were surprising for outsiders to watch unfold in the previous life.
There are two standard anecdotes about the drinking life, the not-so-plush lush life, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story. Not everyone who drinks abnormally makes it as far down the wrong road (emotionally, physically, spiritually) as a pit; not everyone who reaches the pit makes it across or out. Not everyone who makes it across remains in the new life, because “new” can be scary, even when it is “good.”
“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone recently. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase, euphemistic in the way that decent people have of giving euphemisms to difficult things.
Myself, I have lived the sometimes hair-raising life approaching the pit. I lived in the pit. I live in the life on the other side. I do not intend to visit the road back, but every so often, I need to look over there and re-learn some things.
In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald:
He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)
That is the second kind of story. The pit.
So is this: Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, five years before the end so more than a decade ago, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am in fact a racing fan so I have a casual fan’s knowledge base about the sport, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who, has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic OUT LOUD to everyone. I was in my head yet watching from outside it. And it came from nowhere. I had not been thinking actively about NASCAR before the moment. It just spilled out of me. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, because I had not had a drink, and we were not drinking, and it did not look like we were going to be starting any time soon; I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. Thus the subject matter was chosen at random, but by my unsettled mind, and it could have been any other topic, from specific areas in literature to me simply asking how my friend’s family was doing, but I cleverly picked one that not one of my friends shared an enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. It was a monologue.
For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described above about watching his friend Fitzgerald and his lists as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to that season’s championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.”) I also remember that I detected an intervention from this friend and others in my future, and I figured that if I spoke continuously, monologically, no intervention could happen until I paused and took a breath. Instead, the spectacle of me being what I had become probably hastened one. (It did not work, which is another tale.)
(The only thing I have in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald is we both have lived on this planet. He was a writer; I type. His lists might very well have been beautiful-sounding, even if empty.)
My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms or while defending arguments, but they were blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” kept haunting me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.” No one was, not really. Everyone has their own turmoil, after all. Mine was mine as long as it did not become theirs.
Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.”
She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she herself is young, British, female. Being different from her, but not, these figures give her the sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.
What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)
(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” “Echo Spring” is both his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)
The road to the pit, the story before my second kind of story, is full of crazy anecdotes, and it is that story, the outrageous tale, the prurient narrative, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” The “he” was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”
Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will choose to shock you and then shock you in order to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.
NASCAR, random comprehensive lists, shocking people in public. When active, I was not going to ask or demand you to care more about me and my life than I cared about me and my life.
It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art her six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted, and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive their pits.
That life around the corner from the old life, the one that is still just an arm’s length away, living that life is a twist ending from the road on which I was stumbling. Better than and weirder than in any book. Richer, too.
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This last appeared in April 2016. Today is day 2402, but who’s counting?
The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 10 asks us to reflect on the word, “Lush.”
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I dunno — I tend to think that in the case of a few of those writers, drinking was self-medicating to cover up or escape something like bipolar disorder or straight-up depression. I also think that’s a common application of alcohol…
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Self-medicating is certainly a part of it. For me, it was a tool I enjoyed using more than I enjoyed whatever it was a tool for.
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That is one heck of a number so keep on counting.