From the Publisher
"A deft, big-spirited novel about sin, faith, redemption, and the family of man ... You keep reading and you keep believing."
“Steve Earle brings to his prose the same authenticity, poetic spirit, and cinematic energy he projects in his music. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is like a dream you can’t shake, offering beauty and remorse, redemption in spades.”
“Shot through with humor and insight and ... enough action and intriguing characters in it to keep readers turning pages.”
“Earle’s writing never lacks heart.”
—New York Times Book Review
“As he does in his songs, Earle finds the tenuous points of emotional connection between characters who are living not only on the edges of their own ability to cope, but often on the very margins of society itself.”
"This subtle and dramatic book is the work of a brilliant songwriter who has moved from song to orchestral ballad with astonishing ease."
"Earle has delivered plenty of potent messages during his turbulent career, but he has never pricked the public’s conscience in as many different ways ... The renegade troubadour-turned-renaissance man ... challenge[s] audiences to think about mortality, redemption, addiction, artistic commitment and other soul-searing questions."
"Raw, honest and unafraid, this novel veers in and out of the lives of its many memorable characters with flawless pitch. Steve Earle has given us dozens of remarkable songs, he has given us a dazzling collection of short stories, and now here’s his first novel, a doozy from a great American storyteller."
"Earle is pointing out that in fiction reality can merge with myth in the service of a larger truth . . . [I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive] aspires to a certain gritty transcendence . . . [and] comes with a mythic underpinning, a touch of the mysteries."
—Los Angeles Times
"Iconic country-rocker Earle’s imaginative first novel follows the troubled life of Doc Ebersole, who may have supplied the shot of morphine that killed country legend Hank Williams . . . Earle draws on the rough-and-tumble tenderness in his music to create a witty, heartfelt story of hope, forgiveness, and redemption."
"This is an impressive debut novel. The characters are unforgettable, and the plot moves like a fast train. A fantastic mixture of hard reality and dark imagination."
"Earle has created a potent blend of realism and mysticism in this compelling, morally complex story of troubled souls striving for a last chance at redemption. Musician, actor, and now novelist—is there another artist in America with such wide-ranging talent?"
"In this spruce debut novel . . . hard-core troubadour Earle ponders miracles, morphine, and mortality . . .With its Charles Portis vibe and the author’s immense cred as a musician and actor, this should have no problem finding the wide audience it deserves."
"This richly imagined novel not only takes its title from a Hank Williams classic, it audaciously employs Hank’s ghost as a combination of morphine demon and guardian angel . . . Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé."
—Kirkus, starred review
"What a delight to read this novel and find so many elements I’ve admired in Steve Earle’s songwriting for nearly twenty-five years. It is a rich, raw mix of American myth and hard social reality, of faith and doubt, always firmly rooted in a strong sense of character."
"Steve Earle writes like a shimmering neon angel."
"Earle’s first novel provides a haunting and haunted bookend to Irving’s Cider House Rules. The ghost of Hank Williams walks through this abortionist’s tale that has much to do with grace and aging and death—and the power of the feminine. Gritty and transcendent, Earle has successfully created his own potion of Texas, twang, and dope-tinged magic-realism."
"Everyone knows that Steve Earle ranks among the very best, and most authentic, songwriters in the history of America. With his first novel, Earle has established himself as one of our most knowledgeable and sympathetic writers period. He is a natural-born storyteller. If Jesus were to return tomorrow to 21st-century America, and do some street preaching on the gritty South Presa Strip of San Antonio, he’d love Earle’s magnificently human, big-hearted drifters. Only the man who wrote "Copperhead Road" could have authored I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
—Howard Frank Mosher
"A poignant story of madness and redemption woven into a tapestry of real world desperation and old world magic. It’s colorful, cool, and downright gripping."
—Robert Earl Keen
"The best book I’ve read since The Road. With the lure of Hank Williams’ ghost, a touch of the Kennedy assassination, a little Castaneda and a few miracles, he takes on the underworld and organized religion, and reality as it’s generally supposed, with great certainty and research and style."
—R. B. Morris
"Steve Earle astonishes us yet again. Country Rock’s outlaw legend brings the ghost of Hank Williams to life in a gloriously gritty first novel that soars like a song. And echoes in the heart."
"I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive reads like the best of Steve Earle’s story songs, which means real good. The tale of a more charmingly haunted, trying-to-do-the-right-thing dope fiend you won’t easily find."
"Outsider artists like Steve Earle bring a breath of fresh air to the literary world. I just wish they’d come around more often. Richly imagined and handily crafted—a mighty fine piece of storytelling."
—Madison Smartt Bell
"Perhaps only another great country singer would have the courage to cast [country singer Hank] Williams in the guise of a malignant hillbilly harpy, whose presence inevitably heralds imminent doom . . . And though the novel comes no closer to establishing the facts of Hank Williams’s death, it certainly reveals a good deal of the truth behind it."
In this spruce debut novel (nine years after his short story collection, Doghouse Roses), hard-core troubadour Earle ponders miracles, morphine, and mortality in 1963 San Antonio, Tex., where aging junkie Doc Ebersole performs backroom abortions to support his habit. Ten years before, the doctor was riding shotgun while his patient, fishing buddy, and fellow addict Hank Williams coughed his last in the Cadillac's backseat. Ever since, Hank has haunted Doc, who now "saw no need to squander more than a single syllable on a miserable life such as his own." Hank's ghost berates Doc for taking in one of Doc's "in trouble" Mexican girls, Graciela, who has breathed life not only into the lonesome codger, but into scores of San Antonio desperados who slink through their boarding-house clinic. Word is spreading that Graciela heals and redeems, and that even Doc might kick his habit if he doesn't kick the bucket first. With its Charles Portis vibe and the author's immense cred as a musician and actor, this should have no problem finding the wide audience it deserves. It won't hurt that Earle's next album comes out around the same time and shares the title. (May)
Fans of Texas singer/songwriter Earle know that he can tell a story in a three-minute song, but with his debut novel (after the story collection Doghouse Roses), he proves that he can successfully sustain plot and character through a full-length work. Doc has lost his license to practice medicine but still tends to the whores, victims and/or perpetrators of street crime, and occasional unwanted pregnancy in San Antonio's South Presa corridor. Doc is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams (he might have had a hand in Hank's journey to the grave), and most of the proceeds from his illicit medical practice go to support his own heroin habit. Then a Mexican girl seeking to terminate a pregnancy is brought to his room. Because Graciela bleeds profusely after the procedure, Doc moves her into his room. Soon she insinuates herself into his life and his medical practice, and Doc is feeling the call of the needle much less frequently. While Graciela herself is slow to heal, the patients she touches seem to mend as if by miracle, eventually bringing Doc and the other residents at the boardinghouse unwanted attention from both the church and the law. VERDICT At once gritty and tender, this is an arresting story of pulling oneself back from the precipice and finding the beauty in the darkest of corners. Fans will seek it out, but readers don't have to be familiar with Earle's musical career to fall under its spell. [See Prepub Alert, 1/15/11.]—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib.
A thematically ambitious debut novel that draws from the writer's experience yet isn't simply a memoir in the guise of fiction.
Since "write what you know" is the axiom of most fledgling authors, it's no surprise that the first novel by the acclaimed singer-songwriter who previously published a collection of short stories (Doghouse Roses, 2001) should be steeped in the cultures of San Antonio (his hometown), country music (his early musical focus) and drug addiction (which almost killed him). Yet this richly imagined novel not only takes its title from a Hank Williams classic, it audaciously employs Hank's ghost as a combination of morphine demon and guardian angel, whose presence initially can only be witnessed by Doc, the novelist's protagonist. Ten years earlier, Doc was Hank's companion and fishing buddy, one of the last to see the country singer alive, and perhaps the cause of his death. By the time of this novel, set in 1963, Doc has lost his license, his home and any reason to live beyond his daily fix. He supports himself by performing cheap abortions, which is how he meets the teenage Mexican immigrant who will prove a miracle worker not only in Doc's life but throughout the story. Graciela (who refuses to be called "Grace," though that's what she embodies) stays with Doc after he performs her abortion, helping assist him in a procedure that her religion considers a mortal sin, and somehow develops a miraculous healing power that not only helps Doc kick his addiction but provides salvation to so many of the San Antonio neighborhood's other hookers and junkies. "There was something that was at once humbling and empowering about her very presence in his life," Earle writes. With a plot that encompasses the Kennedy assassination along with the life and death of Hank Williams, and which draws a thematic line between spirituality and the religion which purports to embody it, the novel occasionally stumbles in its ambition but builds to a transcendent climax.
Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé.
Read an Excerpt
Doc woke up sick, every cell in his body screaming for morphine
— head pounding — eyes, nose, and throat burning. His back and legs ached deep down inside and when he tried to sit up he immediately doubled over, racked with abdominal cramps. He barely managed to make it to the toilet down the hall before his guts turned inside out.
Just like every day. Day in, day out. No pardon, no parole. Until he got a shot of dope in him, it wasn’t going to get any better.
Doc knew well that the physical withdrawal symptoms were nothing compared with the deeper demons, the mind-numbing fear and heart-crushing despair that awaited him if he didn’t get his ass moving and out on the street. The worst part was that three quarters of a mile of semi-molten asphalt and humiliation lay between him and his first fix, and every inch would be an insistent reminder of just how far he had fallen in the last ten years.
In the old days, back in Bossier City, all Doc had to do was sit up and swing his needle-ravaged legs over the edge of the bed and his wake-up shot was always right there on the nightstand,
loaded up and ready to go.
Well, almost always. Sometimes he would wake in the middle of the night swearing that someone was calling his name.
When morning came he was never sure that it wasn’t a dream until he reached for his rig and found it was empty. Even then, he had only to make his way to the medication cabinet in his office downstairs to get what he needed — pure, sterile morphine sulfate measured out in precise doses in row after tidy row of little glass bottles. And he was a physician, after all, and there was always more where that came from.
“But that was then,” sighed Doc. The sad truth was that, these days, he had to hustle like any other hophead on the street, trading his services for milk-sugar– and quinine-contaminated heroin that may very well have made its way across the border up somebody’s ass.
San Antonio, Texas, was less than a day’s drive from New Orleans but Doc had come there via the long, hard route, slipping and sliding downhill every inch of the way. Consequences of his own lack of discretion and intemperance had driven him from his rightful place in Crescent City society before his thirtieth birthday.
In one desperate attempt after another to escape his not-sodistant past he had completed a circuit of the Gulf Coast in a little over a decade, taking in the seamier sides of Mobile, Gulfport,
and Baton Rouge. But when he landed in Bossier City, Shreveport’s black-sheep sister across the Red River, he reckoned that he had finally hit bottom.
But he was wrong.
The South Presa Strip on the south side of San Antonio was a shadow world, even in broad daylight. Squares drove up and down it every day, never noticing this transaction taking place in that doorway or even wondering what the girls down on the corner were up to. The pimps and the pushers were just as invisible to the solid citizens of San Antonio as the undercover cops who parked in the side streets and alleyways and watched it all come down more or less the same way, day after day, were.
Doc stepped out into the street. The block and a half between the Yellow Rose Guest Home and the nearest shot of dope was an obstacle course, and every step was excruciating; nothing but paper-thin shoe leather separating broken pavement and raw nerve. The sun seemed to focus on the point on the back of his neck that was unprotected by the narrow brim of his Panama hat and burn through his brain to the roof of his mouth. He spat every few feet but could not expel the taste of decay as he ran the gauntlet of junkies and working girls out early or up all night and every bit as sick as he was.
There was a rumor on the street that Doc had a quantity of good pharmaceutical dope secreted away somewhere in the dilapidated boarding house. The other residents had torn the place apart several times, even prying up the floorboards, and found nothing. Of course, that didn’t stop some of the more gullible among the girls from trying to charm the location out of him from time to time.
Doc never emphatically denied the stories, especially when he was lonely.
He turned leftat the liquor store, slipping around to the parking lot in back where Big Manny the Dope Man lounged against the fender of his car every morning serving the wake-up trade.
“Manny, my friend, can you carry me until about lunchtime?
Just a taste so I can get straight.”
Big Manny was his handle, but in fact, big was simply too small a word to do the six-foot-five, two-hundred-and-eighty-
odd-pound Mexican justice. Gargantuan would have been more accurate if anybody on South Presa besides Doc could have pronounced it, but everyone just called Manny Castro Big Manny.
Doc shivered in the pusher’s immense shadow but Manny was shaking his head before Doc got the first word out.
“I don’ know, Doc. You still ain’t paid me for yesterday. ¡Me lleva la chingada! Fuckin’ Hugo!” He snatched a small paper sack from beneath the bumper of his car and lateraled it to a rangy youth loitering nearby. “¡Vamanos!” Manny coughed, and the kid took off like a shot across the parking lot and vanished over the fence.
The portly plainclothes cop never broke his stride, barely acknowledging the runner and producing no ID or warrant as he crossed the lot in a more or less direct line to where Manny, Doc,
and a handful of loiterers were already turning around and placing their hands on the hood of Manny’s car.
Detective Hugo Ackerman rarely hurried even when attempting to catch a fleeing offender. He had worked narcotics for over a decade, and in his experience neither the junkies nor the pushers were going far. He caught up with everybody eventually.
“That’s right, gentlemen, you know how the dance goes. Hands flat, legs spread. Anybody got any needles or knives, best you tell me now!”
He started with Manny, haphazardly frisking him from just below his knees up, about as far as Hugo could comfortably bend over. His three-hundred-pound mass was all the authority he needed to hold even a big man like Manny in place, leaving his chubby hands free to roam at will.
“How’s business, Manny. You know, I just come from Junior Trevino’s spot. He looked like he was doing pretty good to me.”
“Junior!” Manny snorted. “¡Pendejo! That shit he sells wouldn’t get a fly high, he steps on it so hard! Anybody that gets their dope from Junior’s either a baboso or they owe me money. Hey! You see Bobby Menchaca down there? I want to talk to that maricón.”
When Hugo shoved his hand down the back of Manny’s slacks,
the big man winced.
“Chingada madre, Hugo! Careful down there. My pistol’s in the glove box if that’s what you’re lookin’ for. Your envelope’s where it always is.”
“That’s Detective Ackerman to you, asshole!” Hugo continued to grope around, emptying Manny’s pockets onto the hood of the Ford and intentionally saving the inside of his sport coat for last and then pocketing the envelope he found there.
“Ain’t you heard? Bobby’s in the county. Been there since last Saturday. Fell through the roof of an auto-parts store he was breakin’ into over on the east side. I guess the doors were in better shape than the roof was ’cause he was still inside jackin’ with the latch when the radio car rolled up.” He patted the envelope he’d put into the breast pocket of his own sport coat.
“It all here?”
“Every fuckin’ dime.”
Doc was next.
“How about you, Doc? Got anything for me?”
Doc half grinned. “As a matter of fact, Detective Ackerman,
I regret that you catch me temporarily financially embarrassed.
You usually don’t come around to see me until Sunday so I reckoned I had a day or two. Fact is I’m flat broke. Hell, I haven’t even had my wake-up yet.”
“He ain’t lyin’, Detective.” Manny intervened. “I was just getting ready to send his broke ass down to Bobby.”
“Relax, relax, Doc. Just thought I’d ask while I had you, so to speak. I’ll see you Sunday, but damn, Manny! That’s cold! I reckoned Doc’s credit was better than that around here!” He patted Doc on the buttand turned and ambled back toward the street.
“All right, then.” Halfway there, he turned around.
“Was that the Reyes kid? The one that took off with the pack?”
Manny shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Well, I’d count it twice when it comes back. He was showin’
tracks the last time I rousted him.”
“Yeah, right,” Manny muttered, but he made a mental note to check the kid’s arms when he got back. He and the others replaced their effects in their pockets, and as soon as Hugo was out of sight Manny stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loud enough that there could be no doubt that the runner would hear him.
“Pinche Hugo! ¡Cabrón!” Manny grumbled. “He leaves me alone ’cause I pay him but then he sits across the street in an unmarked car and picks off half my customers when they leave the spot. That shit’s bad for business!” He spat on the ground and threw in an extra ¡cabrón! for good measure.
“Yeah,” Doc agreed. “The fat son of a bitch takes a fair bite out of my ass every week as well, not to mention the odd course of penicillin on the cuff. Then again, I guess he needs to make it look good . . . Hey, speakin’ of on the cuff, Manny, I know I owe you but . . .”
At that moment the kid rounded the corner, huffing and puff-
ing, and handed off the pack. Manny didn’t even look inside before grabbing the kid by the wrist and peeling his shirtsleeve back, up above his elbow, to reveal that Hugo hadn’t been lying.
“¡Maricón!” he snarled as he backhanded the kid across the face with such ferocity that blood spurted instantly from both his nose and his mouth and he tumbled backward in an awkward somersault.
He skidded on the seat of his pants but he hadn’t even come to a full stop before he was up and gone.
“Don’t come back, Ramón!” Manny shouted after him. “And I’m gonna tell your mama!” He turned back to Doc, shaking his head. “I told you, Doc. I can’t carry every junkie on the south side that comes up short . . .”
“Oh, ferchrissake, Manny. Tell me, have I ever let you down?
When did I ever fail to pay a debt, to you or anybody you know!
I can’t work in this condition. Besides, amigo, I wasn’t worryin’
about money when I was diggin’ that twenty-two slug out of your ass last year, now was I?”
“Oh, so that’s how it is, huh, Doc? All right, then. See how you do . . .”
The bickering continued until the ritual was completed with an unintelligible grunt and a secret handshake, Manny pressing the little red balloon into the palm of Doc’s hand. Manny had known he was good for it all along. All the hemming and hawing was just for show, an oft-repeated performance for the benefit of any deadbeats standing within earshot. A businessman had his reputation to consider, after all.
The hardest part of the whole ordeal was the long haul back up the block, retracing the same steps on even heavier, shakier legs.
He never carried his wake-up shot back to the boarding house in his pocket or his hatband anymore. Instead, he cupped the dope in the hollow of a clenched fist as if it were some magical winged creature that would vanish into thin air if allowed to escape. He could feel the balloon against his sweaty palm and sometimes he swore that he could taste the dope inside. By the time he got back to his room and cooked it up he had to fight back a wave of nausea,
a Pavlovian response to the smell of sulfur and heated morphine.
Tie the tourniquet, find the vein, pull the trigger . . .
Burnt sugar on the back of the tongue, tingling scalp, aches and pains evaporate, leaving only a whisper behind:
“Say, hey there, Doc, my old back’s actin’ up somethin’ awful . . .”
“Not now, Hank,” Doc said out loud and the sound of his own voice was all that was needed to weigh him back down to earth and the business at hand.
Oh, well. It was only a taste to get him straight enough to work.
The beer joint was dark, if not cool, inside, and this time of day it was quiet because only the most hard-core alcoholics came in this early and they never wasted their money on the jukebox or the pool table in the back. Doc ordered a draft, and Teresa, the barmaid, dutifully drew it and took his money, though they both knew good and well he couldn’t choke it down on a bet, at least not until he got a little more dope in his system. The two bits was more like a rental fee on the little table in the back of the joint where everybody on South Presa knew Doc could be found every day between eleven and five.
Business had been slow lately and there were days that Doc resorted to petty theft and short-change scams to support his habit,
vocations that he considered beneath him and that he was never very good at. By noon that day he was beginning to get more than a little discouraged. No one had so much as looked in his direction all morning long and it was only Tuesday; the week ahead loomed like a long, dark tunnel. Then the screen door creaked open, announcing a new arrival, a stranger, and things started looking up.
The tough-looking pachuco clicked and clacked noisily across the room, the metal taps on his brilliantly polished tangerine shoes announcing that he was a big man in his barrio and not afraid of anyone in this one. A sad-eyed young girl followed a few tentative steps behind. He ordered a bottle of Falstaff, and when Teresa reached for the dollar bill he laid on the bar, he covered it with a cross-tattooed hand and leaned over to whisper in her ear.
She nodded in Doc’s direction, and the youth clattered across the room to stand threateningly over Doc, a dark little cloud ringed in fluorescent light. The girl waited by the bar.
“This girl” — the boy motioned behind him with a cock of his head — “is in trouble.”
Up close the chico didn’t look so tough. All the hair grease and attitude couldn’t hide the fact that he was just a kid, at most nineteen or twenty. Doc gripped the edge of the table to steady himself and leaned sideways to peer around him at the girl, who was even younger.
“You the daddy?”
The boy only stared coldly back.
“Well, Slick, where I come from a gentleman never leaves a lady who’s in the family way standing around on a hard concrete floor.” Doc waved at the girl. “Honey, why don’t you come on over here and take a load off your feet?”
The kid’s fierce features instantly darkened but he still said nothing, and the girl didn’t move.
“Okay, Slick, it’s up to you. But if you want me to help you,
then I need to ask your gal some questions, or maybe you can tell me what I need to know. When did she have her last menstrual period?”
That did it. The boy motioned the girl over to the table. Doc pulled out a chair for her and began talking directly to the girl in low, reassuring tones, though he knew she couldn’t understand a word. He eyeballed the boy, who grudgingly interpreted the girl’s obvious terror into impatient, condescending English. A big tear that suddenly escaped her eye, trailing down one cheek, confirmed Doc’s suspicions that his bedside manner was being lost in the translation.
Doc stood up, and the boy suddenly shrank beside him as Doc threw a surprisingly strong arm around him and escorted him toward the door…