As a singer-songwriter who kept throwing grit and squalor into that overproduced candy shop Nashville called country, Steve Earle has had a hand in protecting the authenticity of a unique American musical tradition and in birthing a new one—the more contemporary iteration of “Alt-Country” or “Americana” music. He has lately taken a shot at acting with a role in HBO’s “Treme” and recently added “novelist” to his impressive C.V.
In a burst of multitasking hubris, Earle released an album and a novel together. The two efforts share a name, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”(lifted from a Hank Williams tune) and a wizened view of the world and man’s often sad and lonely place struggling in it. Earle’s father passed away as he wrote many of the album’s songs, which may have contributed to the gloom of mortality that hangs over both works. Earle has recently remarried and late in life appears surprised to welcome a new son into the world. You can almost hear his bemused appreciation for this turn of events and the peculiarly creative effort of baby-raising in the album’s few counter-current tunes.
Faith and redemption taunt both the book and the vinyl. But where one succeeds in coaxing nods of recognition and a lopsided smile or two, the other surrenders its narrative integrity to duplicitous moralizing.
Some Great Tunes
The musical incarnation of “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” includes the basics of any recent Steve Earle album. Anyone who has paid the least attention to his career will recognize its overall sound and structure—personal reflection followed by a howl or two at political moons. Earle remains faithful to the American folk tradition, digging deeper on occasion as some tunes tap the cheerful cynicism of Irish folk. But he twists and folds the tradition to his own sardonic devices, firing away at contemporary targets. The album surveys death and recrimination, redemption and gratitude. God and the devil seem to haunt Earle’s present as he surveys his past and reconsiders his future.
I don’t think Earle can make a bad album, and this one includes some great tunes that work at times despite themselves. “Every Part of Me” offers an unfortunate litany of lyrical clichés, but it still charms mostly because of its unselfconscious sincerity. “This City” is a mournful tribute to the often tried but unbroken spirit of New Orleans.
Still, Earle sounds a little listless. The album lacks the energy and some of the passion of other recent efforts, like “Washington Square Serenade” and “Transcendental Blues.” Earle’s craggy, wise voice is recognizable, but it’s distracted and uninspired, not so much properly world weary as plain weary. What should have been a stinging rebuke to the presidential legacy of George W. Bush, “Little Emperor,” comes across instead as contrived and a little pointless now. Worse, it’s hard to listen to. That’s especially surprising since another great musical multitasker, T-Bone Burnett, produced the album.
“Meet Me in the Alleyway” channels Tom Waits and touches on personal end-times. On “God is God,” Earle assures, “I believe in prophecy/some folks see things not everybody can see/...I believe in miracles,” a theme he returns to in his novel. But Earle’s flat statement of faith and blessings received, earned or not, troubles a little; there is more resignation than joy in it.
Earle revives on “Gulf of Mexico,” a contractual nod to the Irish folk tradition from which he hails and “Waitin’ on the Sky,” a jaunty exploration of a wayward life, finally redeemed. (Another Irish-sounding tune, “Molly-o,” might have been better left in an archive.) Though “Gulf of Mexico” tracks BP’s errant ways and the impact of the great oil spill of 2010 on the working men and women of the gulf, it might have been written a century ago about union organizers, Galway fishermen or highwaymen.
If the album disappoints, it’s mostly in comparison with the high bar set by stronger efforts, but the novel provokes an emotion closer to betrayal. The work suffers from some minor structural disorders. A first-time novelist, Earle doesn’t seem to trust his story to tell itself or his reader to figure things out. Some moments are overwrought and overloaded with exposition; some characters seem poured out of a box of literary ready-mix, albeit one that’s mouse-gnawed and whiskey-stained. Internal monologues displace narrative action.
“I’ll Never Get Out of Here Alive” initially surpasses these drawbacks on chutzpah alone. Earle generally tells this story of addiction, poverty and the miraculous amid the squalor well, probably because it’s a place he has inhabited too long himself. He seems to have devised a gravelly variant of a number of familiar American genres. Gritty magic realism meets American pulp. It’s as if Albany’s William Kennedy and the dime novel maestro Jim Thompson had a bastard child together, though at times the ghostly presence of Hank Williams resembles a morphine-addicted Caspar more than a spectrified Don Buendía.
Earle tells the tale of “Doc” Ebersole, as beat up and beaten down a character as you are likely to meet in San Antonio’s South Presa Strip or anywhere else in American fiction. Once the personal physician of the legendary Hank Williams, Doc is now a morphine addict himself, a drifter, supporting his habit by working as the neighborhood’s unofficial E.M.T. He is a knife- and bullet-wound healer as needed and an abortionist for the prostitutes who work the streets around his hotel when they get careless. Doc is literally haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, who has had “a feeling called the blues” since Doc inadvertently killed him on a dark highway years before with an overdose of morphine.
Doc suffers misgivings about his work but rationalizes his commitment to the trade. At least when girls come to him, he reasons, they are not likely to be imperiled by a procedure they’re going to undergo anyway. Doc’s self-destructive routine is broken by the arrival of a young Mexican girl and her no-good boyfriend, who puts her in a family way and then dumps her on Doc. After her abortion, the girl is too ashamed to return to her family, so she joins Doc in purgatory at the Yellow Rose Guest Home. In this place of exhaustion and despair, she begins to produce small miracles. Graciela begins to experience the stigmata after a chance encounter with Jackie Kennedy. Girls who come to Graciela (get it?) don’t return to their trade and more abortions; they return to church.
With Graciela and her perpetually bleeding arm around, Doc is able to kick his habit, his dealer goes straight, and D.O.A.s are restored to life. Eventually the stories of back-alley miracles reach a local priest. While Earle maintains sympathy for his deeply flawed characters, he exempts the parish priest from his kindness. Father Killen’s inexplicable, barely contained fury is chalked up to class resentment and some sadistic sisters from his past. His lack of humanity and complexity are driven by the narrative. If an unrepentant abortionist and his assistant cannot be the bad guys, then the perpetually infuriated Catholic priest will have to do.
Earle seems to throw a jumble of Catholic tropes into a blender and hope for the best when the blades stop spinning: the serene, unquestioning faith of simple folks; rampant Jackie-Kennedy mania; stigmata-infused miracles; a dollop of dying for everyone else’s sins; and a hint of syncretism. Someone schooled Earle well in things Catholic. The reader begins to suspect redemption lurking around the corner. Doc is keenly aware that his sins should lead in one direction, if he believed in that direction. Hell couldn’t be any worse than some of the places he’s known on earth.
All that Roman stuff catches in the craw by the end of the novel, though. Earle’s dabbling with things Catholic is deceit disguised as irony. Graciela’s deep Catholic faith and mystical connection to Aztec life forces cannot hold off the predetermined course of this narrative, no matter how inexplicable such life-giving spirituality makes her final decision. This is a pro-choice fable, dressed up with Catholic and Mexican shiny foil. In the novel’s denouement, great spiritual forces battle for Graciela’s soul; Hank Williams, Nahua spirit-animals and Margaret Sanger reveal themselves, but Jesus never makes the scene.
Then all the Catholic trinkets scattered through the book seem trashy and cruel, particularly Doc’s imitation of Christ and Graciela’s serene acceptance of her stigmata-punctuated “ministry.” Catholic readers can expect to feel used, even angry, to have things they hold sacred exploited, and to such ends. Someone sold Earle a piece of the true cross and he put it in his book; I know it’s not real, but I find myself wanting to take even this fake relic back from him.