I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

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I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

Postby lo&m on Thu May 01, 2014 8:02 pm

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
ISBN: 978-0-547-75443-7

Something a bit different this time, a work of fiction. No less than Steve Earle's debut novel. It more than mirrors his songwriting; it's a continuation and an expanding of it. One thing about Earles' songs is that he can write little vignettes, thumbnail sketches of characters that ring true, that have an air of authenticity. The embittered farmer railing at the causes of his ruin ( The Rain Came Down), the disaffected youth working on his car and daydreaming about faraway places (Someday) and the middle-aged working man worn down by life and quietly accepting of his lot (No 29). He tries to do the same thing here on a larger scale. Doesn't quite succeed but it's a valiant try.

They say to budding authors, “Write what you know,” and it's advice he's followed. The story is set in the red light district of his hometown, San Antonio. A place that he knew well and he describes the dealers, junkies, whores and hustlers with a knowing eye. For he was one of them once. His portayal of the hold heroin has on Doc, his central character is clearly drawn from his own life. Although everything else Doc experiences is clearly fiction.

Doc is only name by which the main character is known. Once a medical doctor, in fact the same doctor who gave Hank Williams a final shot of morphine for his back pain that fateful night of 1st January 1953, he has been haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams ever since as he slid down through the layers of society until he ended up in San Antonio ten years later, funding his drug habit by performing abortions for the prostitutes and patching up the young toughs from the barrio after their gun or knife fights.

It sounds like a harrowing read, yes? That may have been what Earle intended and that's how it begins but it's not how it turns out. The football cliché, 'a game of two halves' came to mind as I read on. At first the book is an unflinching account of the despair surrounding the tormented Doc but it soon changes with the arrival of Graciela, one of Doc's desperate young clients. Graciela is the catalyst for change. Not just in Doc himself but also in the direction the novel takes.

From here on in the story becomes one of mysticism and healing taking in the JFK assassination, the presidential visit to San Antonio the day before Dallas being a pivotal moment in the plot. I think the mysticism and magic is a mistake. If he had written it as a psychological thriller with it left up to the reader to decide whether Hank's ghost was a figment of Doc's heroin delirium or not, it would probably have made for a better book. The violent final act comes as no surprise whatsoever. The steps leading up to it are all well indicated. It's even a bit comical in a way.

So, a flawed book then. But it should be remembered that this is Steve Earle's first attempt at a full length story and I hope I haven't made it sound too bad. The mark of a good book is if you can shoot the film of the book in your mind. I'll never get out of this world alive would make a decent film or tv mini-series but conversely I hope it doesn't get made. Abortion is a highly divisive and politically charged subject in America. I dont think any film-maker would dare make a film where the central character is an abortionist. They'd be tempted to remove all references to it and just make Doc a regular bum. Whereas the abortions and the attendant guilt, despair and atonement is what drives the plot. For me, Earle should be congratulated for avoiding the temptation to write something safe and unconsequential for his writing debut and opting instead for gritty and hard hitting, even if he doesn't quite get it.
Country is a state of mind, not a state of America.
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