Music

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

A been-there-lived-it-attitude and street-level redemption, all propelled by a songwriter's/storyteller's lyrical and narrative knack.


I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 243 pages
Author: Steve Earle
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-05
Amazon

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.”

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image