Sunday, January 6, 2013

Steve Earle uses his musical heritage to craft a powerful novel.

I can’t say I was a great fan of Steve Earle’s music, but when I read that he had based a novel on the life/death of Hank Williams, I thought I would download it to read while traveling.

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive

Steve Earle’s first novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (256 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $26) deals with a fictional friend and enabler of the great country singer Hank Williams, who died of an overdose in 1953 at the age of 29.  This friend is known as “Doc,” nothing more or less, and in 1963 he is a doctor without a license who lives in the red light district of San Antonio and nurses his own heroine addiction by treating the odd gun-shot wound and knifing that happens in his neighborhood.  He is also the go-to guy for abortions, and some folks come from even far away to avail themselves of his secret services.

As he lies in bed imagining his next fix, he is regularly visited by the ghost of his late friend Hank Williams, who chides and chortles at Doc’s shortcomings and almost seems to take pleasure in his addiction.  As the story unfolds, it turns out that Doc was the person who treated Hank with increasingly powerful pain-killers, even as his alcoholism was already destroying him.  The novel has it that it was Doc’s large dose of painkillers, which he administered on the way to a concert, that killed the singer, and Hank haunts him as a result.

Into this world of druggies and prostitutes comes a young Mexican girl, Graciela, who is dropped off and left by her boyfriend, after he has arranged for Doc’s services.  Once he has operated on the girl, she seems to hang around, and before long she is his medical assistant and his almost daughter-like roommate.

Not only that, however: she also seems to have some kind of miraculous powers.  Her effect on the sick is immediate—they always improve markedly when she has touched them—and her influence on Doc and his friends is profound.  Doc begins cutting down and then abstains completely from heroine.  Prostitutes find God, and drug-dealers give up their trade.  Graciela also bears a mark—a wound on her wrist that will never heal—that some claim has magical powers and others see as a stigmata.

Graciela understands that all these powers come from her Mexican grandfather, to whom she has always been devoted and whose words come back to her now that she has moved away.

For a while, in this version of magical realism, Graciela and the ghost of Hank Williams seem to be struggling for the possession of Doc.  None of Doc’s friends see the regular ghostly visitor, but Graciela sees him and fights against his influence.

Later there are more powerful outside forces that they both unite in fighting against, and Doc has all he can do to keep up with them.

This is a wonderful first novel.  It is deeply moving and it uses its magical narrative to tell a story that will remain with you for a long time.

Steve Earl

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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