Thursday, August 25, 2011
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"
by Pa Rock
Steve Earle, the iconic singer/songwriter of such classic American music as “Copperhead Road," is expanding his resume to include the word “author,” and it turns out that he is every bit as good at penning fiction as he is at creating music. Earle’s first book, a short story collection entitled “Doghouse Roses” was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. Now with “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” Mr. Earle has proven himself to be a novelist worthy of critical attention.
Steve Earle’s new book, his first novel, offers a quirky look at the seamier side of San Antonio during the early 1960’s. It is peopled with drug addicts and dealers, pimps, prostitutes, cops on the take, uncaring church officials, a pistol-packing transvestite, JFK and Jackie, a miracle worker, and a heroin-addicted abortionist who is plagued by the ghost of Hank Williams. Earle’s story tells of desperate people awash in grime, crime, blood, dominoes, and Catholic symbolism – yet it is also a tale of redemption.
Doc, the central character, is a former physician who lost his medical license after becoming addicted to heroin. As he was sliding into the gutter, he became Hank Williams' drug supplier and was in the car with Hank the night the country music legend died. From that point on, Hank’s ghost accompanies Doc on his travels as he slips ever further downward. As the story begins, Doc is treating people who can’t seek regular medical care for one reason or another, and using most of his income to support his raging heroin habit. His office is in a local bar, and his clinic is the room where he lives in a seedy boarding house. Most of Doc’s patients are gunshot victims and young girls, often prostitutes, seeking abortions.
Doc’s life begins to undergo profound changes the day that he performs an abortion on Graciela, a young, scared girl not long out of her village in central Mexico. Graciela’s boyfriend pays Doc in advance for the procedure, and then abandons her with the ex-physician. Graciela, much like Hank, attaches herself to Doc and won’t let go. Unlike Hank, however, she pulls Doc in positive directions while Hank continues to lead Doc into his darker places. Graciela gradually becomes Doc’s assistant, and with her assent into medical care, Doc’s failure rate drops to zero. It is rumored that just her touch miraculously heals people.
And things are good for awhile – until the Church rears its ugly head.
This is a powerful little book with a strong depiction of the interplay between poverty, addiction, and crime. It is a view of life well beyond our comfort zone, yet Earle’s characters are endearing in their own peculiar ways and evoke our sympathy and compassion. “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” took me someplace that I would never have chosen to go, and I am better for having been there.
Steve Earle is a damned good writer. I hope that he becomes as prolific with his prose and he is with his music.
(Note: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" was the title of a song written and performed by Hank Williams. It is also the title of Steve Earle's most recent album.)