I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
by Steve Earle
Reviewed by Don Waters
San Francisco Chronicle
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 territory, in other words, for outlaws.
"Day in, day out," Doc emerges from his boardinghouse to score dope and shoot up with a "family heirloom" syringe. There may as well be a worn trail in the pavement leading from Doc's room to his local bar, where he "could be found every day between eleven and five."
To finance his habit, Doc treats "outcasts of various persuasions" for STDs with "black market penicillin" and performs frequent abortions.
Into this hard life floats another ghost, the aptly named Graciela. Graciela's beautiful, young, Mexican, and she needs Doc to terminate her pregnancy.
It soon becomes clear that there's something holy about the girl. She affects the boardinghouse, and its inhabitants, like some kind of apostle. She heals people, including Doc, showing him that a life full of friends trumps veins full of opiates.
"It was amazing," Doc thinks at one point, "how addictive fellowship was."
On this street, amid this sludge and wonder, Earle's bighearted desperadoes are also undeniably funny. Doc's long prayer to God is its own bright miracle. And his arguments with Hank are hysterical. And then there are the wonderful secondary characters, the hustlers, the crooked cop and the black tranny hooker.
Earle does stumble several times with blemishes in his prose. For one, he goes heavy on the exclamation points. In the first scene, in the span of three pages, I count 16 of them. After a while, this gets annoying!
And then there is Earle's presentation of sound. Here's someone struggling with a locked door: "Bang! Rattle! Bang! Rattle! Bang! Rattle!" As a specialist in sound, Earle should know that a person pulling on a fastened door doesn't create that noise.
There's no better salve to ease exasperation than truly fine writing. And Earle wrangles sentences together with the best of them. Following one of Doc's illegal procedures, for instance, "Graciela wrung out the washcloth and gently probed every fold and crevice between Doc's oaken-colored fingers, tracking down all hidden traces of blame by feel and excising them by means of gentle steady pressure and whispered incantations in Nahuatl."
This, of course, is a Western novel, an outlaw novel, and so where would it be without the final showdown?
As the title implies, somebody won't make it out of the book alive. But then, we already know we're in for some heartbreak. Thankfully, Hank's ghost is always hovering around. If he's not coming from the jukebox, the "hillbilly singer" is on the other end of the light wearing his big Stetson, cooing in his mischievous voice, helping to lead the way.
Don Waters is the author of the story collection Desert Gothic.
This review was originally published by the San Fransisco Chronicle.