The Drowning Pool: When Great Writers Are Drunks

Berryman, Carver, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams; none could tend the flame of their talent with anything but liquor and devastation.

You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach.”

— William Faulkner

That’s what alcoholism does to a writer. You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.

— Olivia Laing

The drunk writer is a pernicious cliché. It attracts with delusions of macho thrill and impregnability. Mythologized in black-and-white photographs on the walls of bars that hold some whiff of claim to the culture (so-and-so once boozed it up on that stool), writers who weren’t afraid of downing a cocktail or six still manage to hold some claim on the popular imagination. These men (and they’re always men, it seems) are valorized by a culture that has always had suspicions about writers, artists. The writer who can drink a longshoreman under the table and win the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded more respect than the guy who simply gets the Nobel without ever once taking a wild swing at somebody in a pub.

It has something to do, perhaps, with the air of dissolute chaos that hangs over the wild drunk. There are a few different kinds of drunks — not that many, the taxonomic configurations of alcohol and personality can only generate a few variations; addiction is if nothing else, depressingly familiar and routine — but most of the stereotypes involve a loss of control and an expansive sense of self. This stands in opposition to the image of the writer slumped in a chair staring at a notebook or screen, pensively rubbing his forehead and chiseling out a new way to say something that’s been said five thousand times before. The drunk is out there, living life. The writer is hiding from it, observing. External versus internal, action versus inaction.

It’s common nature to prefer the big to the small, the loud to the quiet, perhaps particularly so in America, a country with a long history of conflating a healthy disrespect for tradition with a less salubrious anti-intellectualism. No matter the stature of its novelists and poets and screenwriters on the world cultural stage, the pursuit of a purely writerly life has always been suspect in a mercantilist culture. That’s maybe why the most popular and “American” of writers have often been those like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer. They could combine prodigious output and a felicitous care for the proper turning of phrase with larger-than-life public personas.

Twain had his joke-riddled public appearances and delight in throwing caustic barbs at the hot-air balloons of current affairs. With Hemingway it was his love of hunting and fishing and entourages and the great bars of Europe and grand meals and one wife after the other and one war after another. For Mailer, there were his fights (physical and verbal), carefully outrageous public statements, and bullying vaingloriousness; plus, he’d served in the army.

They lived vigorous, travel-filled lives, and still found the time to put pen to paper and create their art; bestselling art, which always helps a writer gain a smidgen of respect in America. (See de Tocqueville: “I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.”). Their exploits and personalities made them larger than life; larger than the printed word, even. Even a poet like Walt Whitman is written about in ways that emphasize his vivacity and physicality almost more than his way with the written word. These were large men, in every sense of the word. No sissy atelier-hunched poets they.

Ernest Hemingway at a bar in Cuba

Some handled the creation and maintenance of their larger-than-life personas better than others. The likes of Mailer and Twain had their issues along the way, but lived to a proper old age, still lionized at the time of their deaths as giants of their particular stages. Less fortunate were those like Hemingway, who allowed drinking to become a great part of their lavishly deleterious personality. Alcohol is a tricky mistress, as Papa knew, but he was convinced of his ability to tame it. His narrators and characters retained particular scorn for those who couldn’t hold their booze.

As Olivia Laing writes, in her gimlet-eyed investigation into writers and drinking and destruction, The Trip to Echo Spring, Hemingway had himself fooled:

Right to the end of his life, when he was keeling under the combined weight of depression and alcoholism and a string of head injuries, the complex inheritance of a life lived at full tilt, he maintained an unshakeable belief in alcohol’s essential beneficence, its ability to nourish and uplift.

That “complex inheritance” ended with a shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho. An ugly coda of collapse for a man who had made a career out of characters who always knew the right thing to do and might have been bent and bruised by the cruelty of the world, but never broken by it. John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams.

Laing’s book is a chained portrait of a half-dozen men who carried some similar virus in their psyches, and who were also broken by it to some degree or another. A writer with an ugly splotch of alcoholism in her family, Laing hangs her book on a structure that should have been less effective than it was. She travels from town to town, primarily by train, tracing the pathways of the men she’s writing about.

Well, mostly: She lavishes attention on Williams’ louche haunts like Key West and New Orleans, and a little less so on Williams’ and Cheever’s Manhattan (both of them were strivers who never quite could cut it on that cold island). Laing skips right past the Twin Cities, where Berryman smashed and crashed about. It’s understandable, for all his shatteringly beautiful poetry, Berryman was an ugly drinker, and not one given to poetic locations for imbibing.

The Trip to Echo Spring (she took the title from a line out of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Williams being her clear favorite among her subjects) is, it must be said, an intoxicating read. Laing’s prose is clear-cut and rich, overflowing with a deep, abiding appreciation for the glories of the written word. As clearly as she dissects the ugliness of Hemingway’s bullying of Fitzgerald or the adamantine layers of lies that Cheever packed himself in, she is never less than rhapsodic about their work.

Laing’s disgust rings out more clearly in some sections than others. She has particularly little patience for Berryman’s Viking-like need to annihilate everything and everyone in his life; his unbelievable pomposity doesn’t gain him much sympathy. There’s also a perceptiveness here about weakness and ambition. She understands the wracking pain that produced much of this writing, the insecurities that threatened to drown each and every one of these improbably talented men. In writing about the closeted and class-conscious Cheever’s “burden of fraudulence” that he felt he had to maintain, Laing asks it plain: “Who wouldn’t drink in a situation like that.”

More than anything else, this is a book of pain and beauty, the former constant and the latter fleeting. It’s awash in water and the attendant metaphors, from the lapping waters of Carver’s rough-and-tumble Pacific Northwest towns to the rivers of glorious and damning booze all of her subjects sluiced down their throats. Laing stabs at and occasionally hits the subject that lies behind it all: Why write and read, after all? Reading the passages left behind in a notebook that lies by Carver’s modest grave, she is awed and lets the reader be awed by “All these anonymous suffering strangers… putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone.”

By all accounts, Carver was a mean drunk, about as bad as they came. But his writing provided a glimpse into the dark core of fright and love that so few people cursed with addiction are able to communicate.

How far all of these moments that Laing relates feel from the carnival attraction version of the liberally imbibing writer. There’s a book from 2006 called Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers. It’s filled with cocktail recipes and “tales of the good old days of extravagant Martini lunches and delicious excess.” One can also get recipes from To Have and Have Another, cheerily subtitled as “A Hemingway Cocktail Companion”. (Fortunately, there are no such equivalents for Carver and Berryman, being less discerning boozers.) It’s easier to think of writers that way, impervious to the effects of the things they do, unlike the rest of us fallible mortals who are fully versed in the now-mainstreamed language of addiction and recovery.

Laing does her best to tackle the roots of these writers’ problems, though she comes closer to teasing out the knot of issues from her own past. She achieves a small greatness with this book by ultimately not turning it into a mystery, but rather an empathic exploration. There is a line near the end that rings out with a crisp solidity that Papa would have appreciated:

At some point, you have to set down the past. At some point, you have to accept that everyone was doing their best. At some point, you have to gather yourself up, and go onward into your life.

You can hear Laing’s exhaustion in there with all these sad stories, even her own, and a desire to simply cleave it all away and move forward without the need for a crutch like drinking. It doesn’t solve the class-conscious insecurity that kept Fitzgerald and Cheever from fully enjoying the success they achieved, or the bouts of depression that could occasionally crush Williams like a dry leaf under a boot. The thing that Laing can’t ever get to with this book is the thing that nobody ultimately could, the why. Perhaps simpler was Freud’s take on things. He just thought creative people were insane.

There certainly could have been happy, well-adjusted writers out there who could be called great. Maybe their biographical details aren’t well known for the same reason that few people with relentlessly cheerful childhoods of plenitude and stability write memoirs.

It’s the darkness that attracts, for writers and for readers.