Earle hardly shies away from addiction’s ugly side. There’s a long, powerhouse episode involving Doc’s near-fatal overdose, and subsequent withdrawal, linking its last agonies to an explosion of sexual release, a drug addict’s re-entry into the world of sex from which he’s been excluded due to deleterious effects on his libido. Indeed, Doc is as much a ghost as Hank, until Graciela resurrects his body by siphoning the poison from it, so to speak:
“She arched her back and then fell on him again, her mouth closing on his, breathing in precisely as he breathed out…Perhaps it was Doc’s immortal soul that Graciela was devouring, but the physician knew disease when he tasted it and he couldn’t help but believe that he was better shed of it. He climaxed almost immediately and the pain was unmitigated…”
Reminding me at times of William Burroughs, though not nearly so remote and cadaverous, Doc, like many of his proto-types (cf. Doc Holliday), possesses a worldly neutrality bordering on a death wish:
“[People] cut and they shot and they pounded their neighbors’ faces into bloody pulp…, but Doc tried not to judge. Being in the unique position of having lived on both sides of the tracks, he knew firsthand that there was, truly, no more or less honor among patricians than among thieves.”
Perhaps predictably considering his country and western roots, Earle presents Doc’s outlaw existence of bloody boarding house surgery as in some sense ennobling; an anti-hero is just someone else’s hero, and Doc provides a much-needed service for the poor and desperate, whether or not he feels he’ll pay in the end:
“The way Doc saw things, it was a crapshoot. Where you were born, who your people were—that’s all that mattered. Law and morality had nothing to do with it, let alone anything like justice. It wasn’t like good girls from good families didn’t get abortions… That’s what pissed Doc off the most. The duplicity. […When the child of a carpenter or a truck driver sought the same service, she had no one to turn but criminals. Criminals like Doc…”
The novel is filled, not necessarily in a bad way, with types: besides Doc and Graciela, there is Manny, a fat Mexican drug dealer who dispenses his wares from the back of his Ford; a fiery bartender named Teresa; a tough lesbian named Marge and her meeker lover Dallas. Earle refers to them playfully as “delegates” of South Presa, which is a good way of describing genre types, as well: the discredited doctor, the child-saint, the gruff but sweet whore, each character is a delegate of generic convention.
I kept thinking of Stagecoach, director John Ford’s 1939 ensemble Western, where an unlikely blend of social types—a prostitute, a gunfighter, a gambler, a drunk doctor, etc.—are banded together in the enclosed traveling space of the title vehicle. One scene in the novel recalls this explicitly, and not just because of the names Doc and Dallas. All the above characters pile into Manny’s car to go see John F. and Jackie Kennedy arrive at the San Antonio Airport the day before the president’s assassination:
“Manny was behind the wheel, Teresa in the middle, and Doc rode shotgun. In the back, Marge and Dallas barely managed to squeeze into the third of the seat that wasn’t already occupied by Santo and Maria. By the time Graciela came running down the back stairs, Manny’s old Ford was fairly groaning under the load, and the only seat available was in Doc’s lap.”
Just as in Stagecoach, each character occupying their own small space in Manny’s car is tuned into the event in a different way, but instead of Apache they are besieged by the anticipation of JFK and Jackie Kennedy.
I thought the JFK assassination itself was going to play a bigger role, but it only serves as a catalyzing, then discarded, event precipitating the suddenly miraculous healings of Graciela. Locking eyes with “Yah-kee” Kennedy at the San Antonio airport, the Mexican girl gashes her wrist reaching through the fence, setting off her single stigmata, a wound that leaks blood every time the girl heals or helps someone heal back on the Strip. Soon whores quit whoring, and addicts, including Doc, quit doping.
The local confessionals swell as well, alerting Father Killen, an Irish priest who enters as a late sub-plot, and ends up a crucial, though slightly deus ex machina dramatic device. The priest was, for me, the least humanized character, with motives and actions I found generally confusing. One moment he’s just a tough Irish lad looking for a saint, the next he’s a sadistic fanatic beating up the street trade; the two sides felt disconnected.
Yet though he doesn’t quite work humanly, the priest functions slightly better allegorically, as a kind of devilish leverage of conventional law on the heels of Doc’s relatively lawless, yet graced, existence. When the priest comes for Graciela, it’s truly creepy; and when he precipitates the bloody climax, his theo-pathology makes better sense. I don’t want to give the ending away, so let’s just say that a transvestite’s vengeance misfires fatally.
There are a lot of narrative elements here: a disgraced doctor redeemed by an embodiment of grace, Jackie and John F. Kennedy and the assassination, a disturbed, possibly satanic priest, and last but certainly not least, ol’ ghostly Hank Williams. For the most part, Earle manages to bring it all together.
Rightly, Hank is the unifying force; the novel’s title is that of Williams’ final song, after all. The italicized portions which begin as more discrete sections eventually integrate further into the past tense living world, as Hank keeps prodding and interjecting in hopes of shaping Doc’s actions. Sensed by Graciela at first as an antagonistic cat-spirit, “something between a mood and a smell hanging in the atmosphere”, Hank eventually becomes her most important ally in Doc’s salvation.
In fact, Hank has been loyal throughout the novel, Doc’s most constant if harassing companion. Despite the fact that Doc gave him that lethal dose—or maybe because of it—Hank stands by his man.
Earle’s prose style and fictional voice is generally softer than his musical one, more light-hearted, forgiving, and a touch sweeter on humanity. At times I felt a tendency to over-sweeten the works, a sign perhaps of the author’s affection for his own characters or characterizations: “Manny knocked on his head [as if on wood] with his great knuckles and Doc had to smile.”
Also, exposition often overwhelms description: “…[the priest] had been loath to squander the hard-edge goodwill of the faithful on a handful of heathen hoping to mitigate a lifetime of sin by putting in an appearance on alternate Christmases and Easters, but in the end his calling won out over parish politics.”
The character of Graciela inspires some fairly rhapsodic prose:
“Even her name was beautiful, strangely musical, like soft rain on a tin roof, and because she was fully aware of just how beautiful it was it became exquisite when she pronounced it herself.”
“…the audacity of her innocence…”
“She moved from room to room tracing faint figure eights on the dusty floor. She scanned the shadows, sniffed the air, and listened without and within, searching for any weakness in her own handiwork, the defenses that she maintained around the house and all who entered there.”
“He stumbled a step farther back when the screen door swept aside like a galvanized veil to reveal that Graciela had the face of an angel…”
At its best, the prose has the tough lyricism of Earle’s songs:
“The two young bucks had evidently squared off in the middle of the dance floor down at the beer joint and emptied their pistols into each other at fewer than ten paces.”
“And the only visible light is the faint red glow of the taillights of his own goddamn Cadillac melting into the darkness.”
“…somebody’s got to go to hell, I guess.”
I can imagine Earle singing some of these lines, and that’s good and bad for the novel. I don’t know if it’s absolutely necessary to listen to the record I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive while reading the book I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The word “swampy” is over-used in descriptions of music, but I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (the record) is marshy, boggy, submerged.
I wish Earle had transposed more of the lean, static-y seaminess of the music to the novel. Three songs from the record in particular, “God Is God”, “Heaven And Hell”, and especially “Meet Me In The Alleyway”, ultimately capture something similar as the book, and more, in three to five minutes:
“Meet me in the alleyway/Minute to midnight, don’t be late/Meet me in the alleyway/Better come runnin’, the spirits won’t wait”