John Cheever perhaps gets the most attention in Laing’s pages. Her book begins with a scene bursting with energy and literary mythology: It’s before 9 AM in Iowa City, 1973, and Cheever and Raymond Carver are driving to the state liquor store. Carver forgot to wear shoes, and Cheever’s at the counter buying a half-gallon bottle of Scotch before Carver can turn off the car. Both men were the only of the six to get and stay sober. But Cheever also claimed the acts of writing and drinking to be inseparable: “The writer cultivates, extends, raises, and inflates his imagination…As he inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety, and inevitably becomes the victim if crushing phobias that can only be allayed by crushing doses of heroin or alcohol.” He reiterates: “The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.” Cheever was able to stay sober for six years before dying of cancer that spread from his kidneys throughout his body. Laing’s retelling of Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is as exciting as reading the original; both use the story as a metaphor of what alcoholism does to a writer, with Laing writing, “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.”
Carver unfortunately gets the least amount of page space, but displays the most striking example of “a grandiose degenerate.” Working as a janitor to support his young family, Carver gave up on writing and devoted himself to “drinking full time.” He blacked-out through hours, days, even weeks of hard-drinking violence and cheating, bringing himself to the brink of having a “wet brain”—alcoholic brain damage. Carver managed to bring himself out of it just as success offered its hand in the form of a novel contract. It wasn’t easy, especially considering Gordon Lish’s ruthless edits to Carver’s stories collected in What We Talk about When we Talk about Love—edits that nearly sent him back to the bottle; in a letter to Lish, Carver begged to have the redeeming endings put back in, saying, “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.” Lish didn’t relent; the book was published with the cuts and Carver was catapulted to fame. Later, Carver told the Paris Review, “If you want the truth, I’m prouder of that, that I’ve quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life.” Shortly after making this statement, Carver died of lung cancer.