Steve Earle’s ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’

[7 August 2011]

By Guy Crucianelli

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.”

Dope Smarts

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”

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