Steve Earle is a great writer. Songwriter, that is. As a fiction writer, a prose writer, however—well, did I happen to mention he’s a great songwriter?
On the musical side of his artistry, Earle has become an accomplished producer, learning from those who helped shape his music in the early days. Once he realized what a Steve Earle record ought to sound like—around the time of I Feel Alright—he was able to polish his own songs without the need for a support crew. But as a fiction writer, Earle has yet to reach that point. The eleven stories that make up Doghouse Roses cry out for the guiding hand of a good editor. Like his song demos must surely be, these stories are raw and rough, good ideas that lack focus. In a recording studio, Earle knows how to clean up those ideas and present them as songs with verses, a chorus, a middle eight, hooks and solos. In contrast, his stories read like sketches written about people and situations, sketches that need a stronger narrative drive to succeed as stories. They read like notes for songs. “Wheeler County,” for instance, is a well-meaning look at the life of itinerant singer Harley Watts. Thing is, it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s a nice character sketch, the kind that probably spawned the song “Hardcore Troubadour,” but it’s not really a story.
So what to make of this collection? Well, once you get past that roughness and accept the book for what it is, it’s not bad. It’s hard not to admire Earle for trying something new here, and when he succeeds, he does so with the kind of charm and grit that characterize his best songs. It is his way with small details that makes this worth reading, worth thumbing through occasionally hamfisted prose to get to a line like this from “Doghouse Roses,” where Bobby Charles’s wife, Kim, realizes her husband knows all the dark corners of LA because of his drug habit: “Bobby could show locals parts of this town they never knew existed. Dope does that. It creates its own parallel geography, dark, scary places hidden from the real world behind a façade of palm trees and stucco.” Earle does have a way with words, as anyone who has given a close listen to his lyrics can attest. A fight between Harley and his drunken girlfriend in “Wheeler County” isn’t just a fight, it’s a slow-motion brawl where few blows are landed, a “white trash tai chi.”
First-time writers often tackle a version of their own story, and for Earle, that makes for some amazing tales. This book is thick with wandering singers and disenfranchised junkies. Problem is, fiction can’t compete with fact. Earle went through a dark period during the early 90s. His career spiraled out of control as his addiction to heroin and other substances took hold. He ended up in prison, his guitars in a pawnshop. So when the title story reads like a thinly veiled fiction based on Earle’s life, for instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who cares enough about Earle to read this book who won’t constantly be distracted by the parallels. Elsewhere, when he writes in the first person about the overdose death of a junkie friend in “A Eulogy of Sorts,” you can’t help but feel a chill as you think about Earle going through similar circumstances during his darkest days. It’s the kind of story only someone like Earle, with his experience, rebirth, and extraordinary storytelling skills can render. It makes you long for the harrowing autobiography you know Earle has in him, and makes you hope this collection is just a test-run for such a work.
These more successful stories are toward the back of the book, pointing to a sequencing problem. Readers must slog through a handful of dispassionate, third-person sketches to get to the more fully realized stories that close the book. The book is likely sequenced in the order the stories were written. As Earle gained confidence and found his voice, the stories got better.
He’s still a better songwriter than fiction writer—he does more with the song “Taneytown” on El Corazon than he does in a 10-page story about the same character and events—but he is a natural storyteller with interesting things to say. In a perfect world, someone of Earle’s stature would still be forced to submit his stories for consideration to journals and magazines, allowing for another level of polish, before the stories are collected in book form.
A doghouse rose “comes wrapped in cellophane, with the little plastic bulb of water at the base of the stem,” something bought by men when they’re in trouble. To Kim, the wife of Earle-like singer Bobby Charles in the title story, they represent a “disappointment, a broken promise, and a sleepless night.” On first blush, it would seem Earle might need more than a doghouse rose to make up for foisting this Doghouse Rose on his fans. By the end, you realize the book itself is a doghouse rose. Earle stepped out on his music and this book is the result. “It ain’t much,” you can imagine him saying as he hands it over, “but I did it for you.”
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