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I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle

"I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive"

A review by Don Waters

Everyone knows that terrible things happen in old country songs: A wife leaves her husband; a guy dies at war. Life's rough, times are hard.

Steve Earle, the well-known singer-songwriter, embraces this heartbreaky landscape in his first novel, a rowdy country music song turned into narration. The book's title -- and what a superb title it is -- comes from Hank Williams' last No. 1 hit, before his death, at age 29, in 1953.

Hank's ghost haunts the pages of Earle's story. But mostly he just haunts Doc, an ex-doctor who's fallen on hard times. Long ago, Doc injected Hank with morphine, to ease his back pain, which may have contributed to his death.

Ten years later, Doc is living in San Antonio, and he's a bit of a ghost himself. A functional heroin addict, with "needle-ravaged legs," Doc has to "hustle like any other hophead on the street." And let's briefly peruse this cratered avenue: It's full of "working girls," a pawnshop, liquor store and a "gauntlet of junkies." Prime...

Previously Reviewed by San Francisco Chronicle
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Shah by Abbas Milani

Nearly every chapter in The Shah, Abbas Milani's skillful biography of Iran's last king, begins with a phrase from Shakespeare's King Richard II, about a tragic figure who believes he is ordained by God to lead his people. He likens himself to the sun and to the lion, is usually festooned in finery ...

The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass, 83, is now in his sixth decade of entrancing, irritating and bewildering readers around the world. He is still most celebrated for his first three novels, the largely allegorical portrayals of midcentury Germany now known as his Danzig trilogy: The Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961)...

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories by Robin Black

It's hard to be happy, starting a book of short stories. There's certain heartbreak in it. Best-case scenario, you fall in love with the first story in the collection, only to find its ending already staring you down, shoving you, ready or not, into the next. And if the first piece in the book...

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden

It's hard to wrap your brain around the numbers, to make sense of what they portend. Mexico, home to the world's richest man, has had more than 10,000 people killed -- often horrifically -- since January 2007, just a month after President Felipe Calderon declared a literal war on drugs in his...

The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works by Shelley Fisher Fishkin

It is hard to believe -- because he looms so large in our national letters -- that Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens in 1835, died 100 years ago, on April 21. The anniversary of his death provides an occasion to reappraise his work and rethink his life. Fortunately, critics and biographers have been...

Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture) by Rene Girard

In Laurel and Hardy's Big Business, two door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen fight a bad-tempered homeowner. The manic tit-for-tat escalates from head banging to a demolished house and an exploded car. The three become more and more alike as their wiggy violence spirals without aim or purpose. It...

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein

The specter of communism haunted America in the 1930s, and would not fade away. By the 1940s, Communists and anti-Communists alike would be haunted by their deeds and misdeeds in the decade that began in 1929, when the Stock Market crashed, and ended in 1941, when the country went to war in Europe...

Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California by Jonah Raskin

At the end of the fall semester of 2006, Sonoma State University communications Professor and author Jonah Raskin, about to turn 65, decided he needed to get in touch with the earth and explore his rural surroundings. "Before it was too late," he writes in Field Days, the account of his yearlong...

The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips

Is that the author you hear chortling with pleasure in the background of The Song Is You Arthur Phillips' delight in his latest compulsively playful novel is almost audible -- and certainly contagious. He has managed, in four very different books in vastly divergent settings, to harness his flights ...

Selected Poems by Thom Gunn

All good poets find strains and paradoxes within the language they learn to wield, but Thom Gunn (1929-2004) found more than most. He became a poet of chaste self-control who could celebrate lust; a painstaking inheritor of English verse traditions who moved to America and embraced the freedoms of...

Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (Voice of Witness) by Craig Walzer

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Dear Darkness by Kevin Young

Morality Tale by Sylvia Brownrigg and Monica Scott

Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict by Sandra Mackey

The Konkans by Tony D'Souza

Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery

The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought Since September 11 by John Brenkman

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