John Cheever's short story ''The Swimmer'' piqued British writer Olivia Laing with the way it ''catches in its strange compressions the full arc of an alcoholic's life.'' In The Trip to Echo Spring, she writes, ''I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.'' And so, dragging her own family baggage a childhood scarred by alcohol she explores the lives of six of America's most celebrated literary alcoholics: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Tennessee Williams.
Hopscotching the country by train and plane, she visits their melancholy homes and haunts the Manhattan hotel where Williams died, Hemingway's Key West place all the while stitching together the ways the men's binges and blackouts infused their work. There's a great passage, for example, where she speculates that Hemingway's scathing depiction of a lurching, drunken Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast can be chalked up to Hemingway's writing it when his plummeting health forced him to curtail his own alcohol intake. She offers a sharp take on Fitzgerald drinking heavily, unable to sleep as he churned out Tender Is the Night. ''I can think of very few books that choreograph a downward spiral with such elegant and terrifying precision,'' she writes.
But as fabulous as her literary criticism is, there's no getting around the fact that it's enmeshed in a dang travelogue (why are the Brits so fond of travelogues anyway?). Laing's travel writing, while charming, isn't as memorable as her criticism, and many of the trip's details, such as the frequently conveyed cell-phone patter of her seatmates, can grate. Skip those bits and lose yourself instead in her descriptions of the pain percolating through some of the world's most beautiful novels, plays, and poems. B+