I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive
An abortionist, a whore, and a dope dealer walk into a bar . . .
Thus begins Steve Earle’s novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Set in the slums of San Antonio, the book feels contrived at first: yet another musician espousing the greatness of drugs. In addition, almost immediately it becomes apparent that Doc, the main character, not only smokes dope, but also performs abortions (prior to Roe v. Wade in the 1960s) to support his habit.
Living and working out of a boarding house run by closet lesbians, Doc treats the menagerie of hookers, pimps, and other unfortunate youth who show up at his door looking for help. It seems like Earle created his characters specifically with the desire to give Red-State America heart attacks by page five. A book with such a Burroughsesque beginning should not be so enjoyable.
Neither should the fact that Hank Williams shows up as a ghost. In Doc’s previous life, he was Hank’s Dr. Feelgood, and the specter followed the man who gave him the unfortunate dose that caused his untimely passing. Doc only sees Hank when he is high, acting more as a figure of conscience than a leading man. Earle could have make Hank the focus of the book, which would have considerably weakened it. Hank was famous and everyone knows how his story ended. Author Earle’s characters, as rough around the edges as they are, still have yet to discover their destinies.
This is where, buried under the miles of hard living, baggage, and dirt, the novel’s heart begins to beat. After an encounter with President Kennedy and the First Lady (Yah-kee) at the San Antonio airport, something special begins happening on the South Presa Strip. Hookers stop turning tricks, dope fiends stop buying dope, and even Doc manages to kick his habit. Turns out there is redemption for the wicked if only they visit the Yellow Rose Guest House.
Surprisingly, this may be one of the best books of this year. It is sneaky about its greatness, though. The characters are hard to love and the setting calls for three showers a day, but there is no pretense. They are unapologetically who they are, and they understand that change is a necessary—and hopefully desirable—part of life. People who pretend to be something they are not are the villains in this story.
Mr. Earle has been writing great story songs for years, but it can be difficult to turn a three-minute song into a full-length novel. Here, he succeeds beautifully, even though, or maybe because, life is messy.