|Steve Earle took his book’s title from a song by Hank Williams, whose ghost haunts a character. (FRED R. CONRAD/THE NEW YORK TIMES)|
A tale of sin, grace, and redemption from singer Earle
Steve Earle’s debut novel, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,’’ could become a talking point for critics of graduate programs in creative writing. Earle, one of our better singer-songwriters, never bothered to finish high school. But he put out a surprisingly impressive collection of short fiction, “Doghouse Roses,’’ a decade ago, and has now successfully moved his songwriter’s gift for storytelling onto a still larger canvas.
The novel takes its title, as does a CD of new songs Earle released in last month, from the final single released in the short life of country great Hank Williams. The notes Earle included with the CD suggest he has been pondering mortality lately, as might be expected of a man who has lost his father and gained a newborn son in the past few years. Such thoughts also permeate his novel, which at one level is an allegorical tale of sin, grace, and redemption.
The book opens in late 1963, on a rough side of Earle’s native San Antonio. Its three principal characters’ names contain nods to their roles in the allegory: Doc Ebersole, a morphine-addicted abortionist literally haunted by Williams for having provided the shot that killed him 10 years earlier; Graciela, a spiritually attuned young Mexican immigrant whose punk boyfriend brings her pregnant to Doc for treatment and abandons her; and Manny, a good-hearted giant of a pusher. The other lowlifes populating the novel as minor characters have good in them, too, and include a lesbian boardinghouse owner, a fat cop on the take, a tough, brainy barmaid, and a handful of hookers, one of them a cross-dressing former football player.
Doc’s frequent squabbling with the ghost of Hank Williams isn’t the only magic realism in Earle’s novel. When Graciela leads a contingent to see President and Mrs. Kennedy at the San Antonio airport (a stop on their way to the tragedy in Dallas), she cuts her wrist on a chain link fence waving to Jackie. The wound never heals, and what seem like miracles begin happening. One of them is Doc kicking his drug habit, after an equally miraculous recovery from a near-fatal Christmas Eve overdose. Earle famously kicked heroin himself, and offers informed glimpses of the seamier side of life throughout his novel. Here’s a snippet of Doc going cold turkey:
“[S]ometime deep in the third night, Doc sat bolt upright and wild-eyed to find that he had outrun some unnamed denizen of his dreams only to awaken in palpable agony in the world of light. Pain the likes of which he had imagined in only the most twisted of his medical-school horror fantasies assailed him, as if his spinal cord had been neatly but not necessarily painlessly removed, leaving him raw and empty for an instant before the hollow was filled with alternating layers of fire and ice that froze him and burned him, and he writhed and thrashed until the sheets hung damp and twisted from the bedposts.’’
The bad guys in the novel are two men of the cloth: Father Paddy Killen is a confused zealot with more interest in miracles than in forgiveness and redemption, and Father Ciaran Monaghan, secretary to the auxiliary archbishop to whom Killen reports some of Graciela’s miracles, has little interest in either, and pointedly warns Killen against loose talk about stigmata.
The allegorical aspects never overwhelm Earle’s novel, which is shot through with humor and insight, and has enough action and intriguing characters in it to keep readers turning pages. “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’’ makes a good case that writing workshops aren’t the only places to learn how to tell stories.
Bill Beuttler, publisher-writer in residence at Emerson College, can be reached at email@example.com.