Monday, February 13, 2012

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Steve Earle

Steve Earle has long been a favourite singer of mine, back to his days with The Dukes and Copperhead Road et al. He’s led an interesting life, to say the least, and is a very committed political singer - check out John Walker's Blues if you want evidence of that. It’s no real surprise that he’s turned his hand to writing fiction. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, his first novel (a collection of short stories was published back in 2001), is an intriguing piece of work, ultimately a failure, but a very interesting failure for all that.

The title of the novel comes from a Hank Williams song, and Hank himself is a character in the novel, or at least his ghost is. I would say central character, because in the early stages of the novel he clearly is but, as the novel progresses, his role and purpose become as insubstantial as his ghostly body.

The novel centres on Doc, one of those drop-out good-guys beloved of much American fiction. Think Larry “Doc” (yes, another Doc) Sportello in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Even Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. These are intelligent people who deliberately live among the poor and the dispossessed and place themselves on the verges of decent society. To me, there’s always something vaguely patronising about such portrayals, and so it is with Steve Earle’s incarnation of Doc. These characters always live the same impoverished, drug-addled, crime-ridden lives as the people with whom the commingle, but the difference is that they know it, they know they are living in dissolution and are doing so as a positive choice, whereas the poor schmucks who really belong there don’t realise the futility of their lives. It’s so much horseshit, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. Characters such as these have no basis in reality. They’re designed to allow the author the luxury of getting dirty with the trailer trash while bypassing the worst manifestations of their trashiness, such as not being very nice people, or educated, or reasonable. These pseudo-characters take as their template the incomparable Buddy Suttree, a man who deliberately lives among the poor and the dispossessed of Knoxville. But the difference is that Suttree really does live the life. When he has money he squanders it on drink. When he gets drunk, he winds up in hospital with a floor buffer wrapped around his head and his skull fractured, or lying in an alleyway being pissed on by a black man. That's Suttree. There’s no sense that Suttree is better than these people, that somehow because he’s really educated and smart he’s only slumming it and actually has the potential to transform these poor people’s lives. Suttree’s the real deal. These imposters are lightweights.

Anyway, Doc is a de-registered doctor who operates as an abortionist in the red-light district of San Antonio. He’s addicted to morphine and is being haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, for whom he provided substances when the singer was still alive. That’s a promising set-up. The ghost of Hank Williams – inventive, unusual, lots of scope. And Hank, it emerges, is not a particularly amenable ghost either. He has a malevolent streak and may not wish Doc unadultered good health. Excellent - it would have been easy to descend into hagiography but Earle takes the worst excesses of the real Williams's character and expands on them for fictional gain. From here, though, this promising narrative just descends into something of a mess.

Instead, into the drama comes Graciela, a beautiful Mexican girl straight out of central casting. Graciela is a mysterious girl, seemingly gifted, with a touch that is more than just soothing: she actually heals with her hands. The story shifts again and she becomes a modern saint, a layer-on of hands who begins, quietly, to transform the neighbourhood.

I haven’t mentioned John F. Kennedy yet, and his assassination in Dallas, which is a major plot incident in the novel. Or the pugilistic priest. Or Graciela's stigmata. Or the jaguar spirit. Or the also straight out of central casting overweight, corrupt police officer. But I’m becoming too critical, because all of this is a good read, rattling along at a gripping pace. It’s just that it doesn’t bear scrutiny.

What is interesting, though, is the way the novel confronts abortion. That’s a pretty loaded subject in America, particularly in Texas, and Earle is pretty fearless in his criticism of the Catholic Church’s approach to the subject. Earle has the ability and the interest to write a good, serious work on this subject. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive isn’t it. But it has enough about it to suggest that Steve Earle has a future in fiction.

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