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Review: ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’ by Steve Earle

Musician Steve Earle

Musician Steve Earle

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Local appearance

Steve Earle will read from and sign copies of I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, plus conduct a Q&A session at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln.

Updated: June 16, 2011 12:21AM

Steve Earle writes descriptive, concise lyrics for his epic country-folk-rock anthems and smaller-scale musical gems. This skill doesn’t necessarily translate well into long-form fiction. But with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive , his first novel after an earlier short story collection, Earle proves an imaginative, insightful author with an innate gift for storytelling.

Earle has a terrific flawed hero, too, in Doc, an unlicensed physician in 1963 San Antonio specializing in abortions and VD treatment. Doc fires knee-buckling shots of Mexican mud from a family heirloom syringe that holds five times the usual amount. His best pal is a ghost — Hank Williams’ ghost, to be precise. Hank, whose song provides the title for this novel and an accompanying album release, usually appears just after Doc’s heroin fix kicks in.

And Doc has the drug scene in the Alamo city wired. When things get tight, he can usually get a front from Manny, a bearlike, wisecracking Mexican-American dealer who services the red-light district and has a useful working relationship with the beat cop.

Into this morass of depraved and generally likable souls comes Graciela, a teenage Mexican illegal who was knocked up and left high and dry by her pachuco boyfriend. Doc, who aborts her fetus, immediately takes a shine to Graciela, not only because of her beauty but because she radiates something good and clean that’s been sorely missing from his wretched life.

Rather than force the action through breakneck plot devices, Earle has the maturity often lacking in first novelists to let his tale unfold at its own pace. He patiently waits until rather late in the book to introduce one pivotal character, an Irish priest who becomes obsessed with finding — and exploiting — this Mexican girl with a seemingly God-given gift of healing.

The good vs. evil struggle manifests itself in unconventional ways, which you might expect from Earle, the ultimate country outlaw of his generation. Doc’s internal conflicts are not all that dissimilar to the author’s, if we believe his public persona. Don’t judge this dope-shooting, law-flaunting medicine man too harshly, Earle seems to be saying.

And don’t judge Hank by the human he haunts. Doc may have helped pour the country music immortal into a long, white Cadillac on New Year’s Day 1953, when he went to his great reward, so they may have been connected at time of death. The human and ghost get on rather well, and as a bonus, Hank can be seen by Graciela, albeit as a talking cat.

We might expect Earle to have a political agenda, and he does, although moral outrage is the prevailing tone. The Catholic Church is painted as a villain, promoting an agenda that forces poor girls in trouble to take their chances with back-alley abortionists while rich men’s daughters undergo hospital “procedures” that politely hide their true nature. And the sizable Mexican-American population of San Antonio is tossed a few crumbs in the form of run-down churches and a few Spanish-speaking priests who are blocked from advancing in the bigoted church hierarchy.

The place and time — 1963 Texas — aren’t coincidental. Yes, “YAH-kee” Kennedy is a saint to Graciela, whose own life-changing good works are enhanced by a viewing of the first couple on the fateful morning of Nov. 22.

Leave it to the outlaw Earle to create a flawed man who sees injustice and tries to right it — like the slain president.

Jeff Johnson is a local free-lance writer.

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