You will never know how excited I am about this post. First, it’s multimedia. Second, I get to reference “The Wire.” Third, Steve Earle. Period. Off we go.
“I know I got one more high left in me. But I doubt very seriously if I have one more recovery. So if there’s anybody out there that sees that bottom comin’ up at ’em, I’m here to talk sense. I don’t care who you are, what you done, or who you done it to. If you’re here, then so am I.”
—Walon (Steve Earle) in “The Wire”
Steve Earle is a guy who knows something about redemption. The life he has lived, the characters he has played, the music he has recorded, and now the book he has written are all examples. Redemption is a powerful theme in art, literature, television and music and a character struggling for redemption can be someone we relate to, empathize with, or just plain admire. I don’t claim to be an expert on much in the way of spiritual, but redemption is almost always linked to something that just seems somewhat beyond (or is it way beyond) the world that is right in front of us. Often it is a God, a higher power, or a spiritual grace that helps those seeking redemption. In “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” by Steve Earle, it’s not grace that delivers the main characters to redemption. It’s the magical Graciela. More on her in a moment.
“I’ll Never Get Out…” is Earle’s first full length novel and is about a handful of forgotten souls in Texas in the sixties. Many of the characters are addicted in one way or another—to drugs, to sex, to each other, or to the crusty underworld that they inhabit. They are all sinners, a point highlighted by the fact the main character, Doc, makes his living performing illegal abortions in an apartment above a brothel at the end of a dusty San Antonio road. The musical connection Earle seeks arrives with the ghost of Hank Williams drifting in and out of the novel as a companion hell-bent on haunting Doc. It was Doc who gave Hank the drugs that killed him in 1953, and in return Williams won’t leave the Doc alone.
Doc meets Graciela when her “boyfriend” brings her in for an abortion. It is original sin for Graciela—the moment when she knows she can never return home. From this point until the end of the novel, she is ever-present. A few months after she arrives, she organizes a trip to see the Kennedys as they arrive as President and First Lady in San Antonio, the day before JFK is assassinated. Graciela cuts her wrist reaching through the fence to wave to Jackie (she calls her “Yah-kee;” think of Gloria calling for Zhay in “Modern Family”). The wrist never heals but it is a symbol of her power to heal others.
It is through Graciela that Doc and Manny (a heroin pusher) and others are redeemed. Her touch and her “ministry” is what bonds everyone together, and she is just a terrific character. I could see her face and hear her words in the pages of this novel.
Earle didn’t break new ground with a story of redemption. But what he does here is give us an uniquely Southwestern tale of lost souls seeking redemption through faith and mysticism. I doubt I’m the first to say this, but Earle has taken his masterful career as a musician and lyricist and written a book that, if it were possible, could be set to music. I can’t help but include this passage where Hank Williams is musing about Doc:
How come Doc’s not sick and tired of being sick and tired and lonesome?
Not lonely. Lonesome.
Lonely’s a temporary condition, a cloud that blocks out the sun for a spell and then makes the sunshine seem even brighter after it travels along. Like when you’re far away from home and you miss the people you love and it seems like you’re never going to see them again. But you will, and you do, and then you’re not lonely anymore.
Lonesome’s a whole other thing. Incurable. Terminal. A hole in your heart you could drive a semi truck through. So big and so deep that no amount of money or whiskey or pussy or dope in the whole goddamn world can fill it up because you dug it yourself and you’re digging it still, one lie, one disappointment, one broken promise at a time.
Can’t you just hear Steve Earle reading that in his lazy, country, hard-livin’ voice? Can’t you hear a guitar getting picked over in the background? You can’t write like that unless you’ve experienced both lonely and lonesome and while we don’t wish that on anyone, we’re thankful that Earle chooses to share.
The religious overtones in “I’ll Never Get Out…” are unmistakable. Graciela’s previously mentioned stigmata is the clearest reference. Both of the Catholic priest characters are perfectly portrayed as out of touch with the community to which they are supposed to minister. Former prostitutes begin arriving in church and one confesses her sins. And even the Doc reaches a moment of religious enlightenment as he prays in his own way for a grieving Graciela. A theologian would have much more to say about the over- and under-tones of religion here, but suffice it to say, at the end, you’ll be thinking about your own faith. For me, I liked that Earle emphasized the theme that God is omnipresent—even in the most unremarkable locations. That fits more with my own theology than a story of redemption that takes place solely within the confines of organized religion.
To top it off, Earle (our 2011 candidate for Renaissance Man) has also released an album of the same name. Don’t bother buying the book without buying the album. While it’s not explicit, they are almost meant to go hand in hand. On the I-tunes version, Earle has re-recorded Hank Williams’ song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” It’s fantastic. But the song “God is God,” is even better. From the lyrics:
God of my little understanding don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all
I received the blessings
Every day on earth is another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and lead you against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someones watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth maybe not
And I believe in God
And God is God
This book won’t take you long to read. As Earle himself calls it, it’s a “yarn” –just a damn good tale about sinners and redemption, faith and religion, drugs and sex and love, and of course, music.
Thanks for reading.