Steve Earle’s new novel, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” tells the story of Doc Ebersole with all the kitsch and color of a Loteria card placed before an Our Lady of Guadalupe votive candle. As Earle imagines it, Doc gave honky-tonk king Hank Williams his final, killing dose of opiates. The book is set in 1963 San Antonio, 10 years after Williams’s death, where a disgraced and drug-addicted Doc still carries Williams’s ghost with him as an italicized voice, haunting his less-lucid moments with a country twang.
“I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is a high-contrast comic book without the drawings. Pow! — Irish priests box, barmaids watch soap operas, ex-doctors slam heroin, and the pregnant, Catholic, Mexican girl Graciela might be a saint in disguise. True to his black-and-white vision of Texas, Earle’s characters are either good or bad, with the scales tipped heavily toward the former. Noble whores run the Yellow Rose rooming house where the chummy underbelly of San Antonio comes to have unwanted bullets and babies removed by the gracious and wise Doc, who slips out for a fix of heroin afterward. Even the smack-pushing dealer is a real nice guy once you get to know him.
Earle — a reigning king of the Americana music scene — is ever the rocker. (He even wears dark sunglasses in his author photo.) In fine songwriter fashion, he relies on the familiar forms — verse, chorus, verse — to create this Texas noir. But the constant warnings that danger is coming rob the book of suspense. And for a noir novel, nothing too scary happens. None of the wounded men or hemorrhaging women dies under Doc’s shaky-handed care, and the mean streets of Earle’s San Antonio look more like a cozy, Texas-version of Disney World. Christmas at the Yellow Rose comes with eggnog, “sugar cookies shaped like Christmas trees and stars,” several varieties of tamales and a tree that’s “a little flat on one side but priced to move as the sun set on the last shopping day before Christmas.”
The “shadow world” of the South Presa Strip seems downright cheerful and sunny. When Doc encounters one of his patients leaving the boarding house on the morning after her abortion, she calls out to him: “Now, Doc, before you go and get your shorts all in a knot, I heard what you said, and I promise, [oral sex] only for at least a week.”
“ ‘That is not what I said, young lady. My orders were to stay in bed for the rest of the day and not to work, at all, for a week to ten days, depending on how you were feeling — ’ ”
“ ‘Well, I’m feeling just fine, but jiminy cricket, Doc! A week? You gonna keep me straight for a week?’ ”
Thus it rolls in Earle’s happy land of heroin and hookers.
The novel’s central crisis is primed by a day trip to see President Kennedy and his wife, “Yah-kee,” as the Mexicans among the Yellow Rose group call her. The Catholic Kennedys are revered among the South Presa crew. Graciela forces her arm through a gnarly, galvanized fence just to wave to the first lady, not realizing she’s cutting her wrist. When history happens the following day in Dallas, Graciela’s wound takes on supernatural abilities to heal others — the stigmata of San Antonio.
Earle’s Hank Williams doesn’t have much in common with the jambalaya-crawfish-pie-ah Hank Williams. This Hank is more albatross than musical hero. Sometimes, Williams whines. Sometimes, he threatens Doc, wanting company in the dry nothingness of death. Perhaps Earle’s is a truer portrait of this American legend than the yodels of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” let on. Williams, born with spina bifida, spent his career trying to control the pain with alcohol, morphine and a variety of other drugs until he ended up dying in the back of a limousine on New Year’s Day in 1953, at the blindingly young age of 29.
Earle has a well-storied past as an addict — reflected not only in his lyrics and his acting role on HBO’s series “The Wire” but in one of his book’s most palpable scenes: Doc’s withdrawal from heroin. “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.”Spoken like someone who knows.
The page goes white as Graciela and the forces of good fill the frame, celebrating a temporary victory. But outside, darkness gathers, readying itself for the ending Earle has warned us about throughout. That same old song — Earle’s, Williams’s, the cycle of addiction — starts up again, sounding a bit too familiar.
Steve Earle will perform Aug. 13-14 at
the Birchmere in Alexandria.
I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE
By Steve Earle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 243 pp. $26