Wracked by guilt and addiction 10 years after administering a fatal morphine overdose to Hank Williams, Doc Ebersole performs illegal medical services in the red-light district of San Antonio before meeting a young Mexican immigrant who seems to heal others with her touch. 50,000 first printing.
The words “author” and “authority” are similar, but by no means interchangeable. Just writing a book doesn’t make someone an authority. And being an authority doesn’t mean someone can write a book, especially if the authority manages to let their knowledge about a subject get in the way of telling a good story. Having said that, an author who writes with authority — with the confidence that comes with mastery of a subject — can turn out work of a higher quality and tenor than those of us who just make stuff up.
You might expect Steve Earle, as an author, to write with authority about music. He has been one of the leading lights of the alt-country music scene for a quarter-century now, and has a formidable reputation as a songwriter on top of that. Given that I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE is accompanied by a studio album of the same name, and that the ghost of Hank Williams plays a large role, it’s altogether reasonable to expect there to be a significant musical underpinning to the novel.
But it’s not there.
Well, Hank is there, but he doesn’t play his guitar or sing the lovesick blues or do much of anything but haunt Doc Ebersole. By the time the story starts, he’s been doing that for a long time — haunting the doctor that gave him the last shot of morphine to soothe his aching back and worried mind. Now it’s 1963, and the world has moved on from Hank’s kind of music, and Doc has moved on to the mean streets of south San Antonio. Doc, you see, is a heroin addict. That’s how the story begins, anyway, with Doc (that’s what everybody calls him now) dragging his sorry self out of his seedy boarding house, down the street to the guy selling smack behind the liquor store, trying to get just enough opiates in his system to be able to function for one more day.
And here, in the scenes that detail exactly what Doc goes through every day as a heroin addict, is where we see the author speak with the authority that makes the story real, vibrant and meaningful. If anyone else in the world of publishing knows more about heroin addiction than Steve Earle, they are either dead, extremely grateful not to be dead, or Keith Richards. The long name for it is verisimilitude; the short name is the truth. The fictional character of Doc is not a stand-in for Earle, but his experience informs the writing and makes Doc’s cravings realistic, believable and compelling beyond what any ordinary writer could achieve, or likely want to achieve.
But Earle’s tale is not just about heroin and everything that comes along in its train. His subject matter is the low life — the slums and the people who live there and what they do — and he writes about them with empathy and skill and purpose. His characters are sinners in need of redemption, but not judgment. He doesn’t varnish or excuse what Doc does to get the money for the drugs he needs — in fact, his own brand of social activism peeks through now and again to justify Doc’s actions, if not to excuse them.
I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE is not a pretty book, and no one is asking the reader to find it so. The ending is more than a bit forced when it’s not downright awkward, and its foray into Latin American magic realism is unsubtle at best. But no one can deny the power that Earle displays in writing about bleakness, heroin and the ghost of Hank Williams. The pleasure of seeing him transfer his many gifts into liquid, memorable prose far outweighs any other shortcomings.