Highway to Hank
Steve Earle is one of those artists who seem tapped into something ancient. Behind his recent up-from-the-swamp look and truly lived-in appearance lurks what is commonly called an old soul, peering out with a viciously shrewd twinkle that knows just where it’s at.
Musically, Earle hovers somewhere near the intersection of the two Elvis’s, Presley and Costello, themselves intersecting gospel, country, ‘50s-‘60s pop and rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, he’s a hook-conscious hillbilly, his songs a seamless blend of catchy immediacy and old-time authenticity, both grounded by his distinctive voice—a well-traveled twang that conveys wisdom, yearning, anger, weariness and then some. Earle knows just how to use this voice, often exaggerating the twang to very effective ends.
When reading Earle’s first novel, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, it was hard for me not to hear this voice, and I think this helps the novel. It’s not a great work like his best albums—Copperhead Road (1988), Transcendental Blues (2000)—but it carries the same been-there-lived-that attitude and street-level redemption, all propelled by a songwriter/storyteller’s lyrical and narrative knack. Of course, Earle has always told stories, not just in his fiction collection Dog House Roses, but in many or all of his songs. In fact, this novel and an album of the same name were released around the same time, but more on that below.
A drug addict street abortionist, a Mexican girl-saint, an Irish priest, and the ghost of Hank Williams enter a bar…These are the main characters of the novel, which takes place on the seedy South Presa Strip in San Antonio, Texas in 1963. Doc Ebersole, a down-an-out morphine addict physician, performs fly-by-night surgeries on fellow addicts and gang casualties, as well as “termination procedures” for intrepid hookers and teenage girls who find themselves in difficult straits. One of these mothers-not-to-be is a young Mexican girl named Graciela, dumped on Doc by her twitchy boyfriend who is never seen or heard from again; as her name suggests, miraculous things begin happening with Graciela’s appearance, which draws the somewhat suspect attention of the local priest.
Hovering around or over or within all this is Hank Williams’ ghost. It seems Doc is the infamous physician who administered the fatal dose that killed ol’ Hank, and so the country singer lingers, attached to Doc by more than residual guilt. It’s clear the spirit cannot move on without the physician, so it keeps close watch, and with purgatorial impatience keeps tempting Doc onto the spectral highway where the ghost ubiquitously exists: “And then, Hank reckons, it’ll be Doc’s turn to follow Hank even to the very gates of hell. Or Alabama.”
It’s not often enough that one hears about Williams’ spina bifada. Earle alludes to it throughout, and as disease mortalizes, the ghost often feels fleshier than the live characters. Also, Hank’s appearances are in present tense italics, and so have a living proximity at odds with the existential past tense of the character. At times, I imagined it as theater, a ghost play, with Hank’s spirit delivering earthly asides to the audience:
“Just give him [Hank] steak and taters when he’s hungry, whiskey when he’s dry, pussy when he’s lonely, and maybe a little old-time religion when he dies.”
This ghost device might have been more annoying in someone else’s hands, but with Earle it seems appropriate and, for the most part anyway, it works. There are times when it ‘s perhaps a little too coy or cloying, but Hank’s ghost grew on me, and by the novel’s very moving end scenes, I was right there with him.
Despite Hank and the ensemble cast, the story is essentially Doc’s. In many ways, Doc is in a long line of that classic Western type, the once professional medical man sunk low in society through some moral or physical failing, usually alcoholism. Earle lays it out early:
“Consequences of his own lack of discretion and intemperance had driven him from his rightful birthplace in Crescent City society before his thirtieth birthday. In one desperate attempt after another to escape his not-so-distant past he had completed a circuit of the Gulf Coast in a little over a decade, taking in the seamier sides…he reckoned he had finally hit rock bottom.
But he was wrong.”
As this is the ‘60s, instead of a besotted Doc, we have a be-drugged one, which makes more sense and has more edge:
“…in the first year of his residency he befriended a crazy old pathologist who worked the midnight shift in the county morgue, and it was he who introduced Doc to the miracle of morphine. From that very first shot it was if he’d discovered the one vital ingredient that God had left out when He’d sent Doc kicking and screaming into the cold, cruel world.”
I’ve never had the dubious pleasure of being a junkie, but I know they love the ritual as much as the high. It’s no secret that Earle had his own drug problems, and that he possesses that wonderful oxymoron dope smarts. His portrayals of shooting up, and the whole junkie mentality, are described almost lovingly:
“Most junkies had to settle for homemade contraptions contrived from eyedroppers and rubbers bands, but not Doc. His rig was a family heirloom, part of a fine old set of German-made instruments that his grandfather had given his father…In a half cc of water, three bags of Mexican brown cooked down to the consistency of a good milk shake.”