Book Review: I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, by Steve Earle
A long time ago, he was Joseph A. Ebersole, M.D. Now it’s just Doc. No medical license anymore, a monkey on his back and the ghost of Hank Williams on his trail, Doc lives in a boarding house in the worst part of San Antonio, digging out bullets and performing abortions. Everything’s going terrible, just the way Doc likes it, until a little Mexican girl named Graciela shows up pregnant and scared.
Graciela loses a lot of blood during the abortion, so she has to stay with Doc in his room to convalesce. Doc secretly falls in love with her before realizing she has strange healing powers. Once those powers are fully revealed to him, their relationship is cemented and defined.
Hank’s ghost has nothing in common with Casper. He’s mean and jealous. Doc gave the needle to Hank years ago, and now Hank the unfriendly ghost returns the favor by appearing to Doc whenever the needle hits his vein. He’s set on bringing Doc to the other side to walk the Lonesome Highway with him, but Graciela’s presence threatens Hank’s role as Doc’s companion/tormentor.
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive is a complex story of the mundane and the fantastic. Mr. Earle treats all elements of the book with the same degree of respect, letting them speak for themselves. At one point, Doc asks his drug-dealer friend, Big Manny, what he thinks hell will be like. Manny says he’s not sure but speculates “. . . maybe I’ll have to stand behind the liquor store forever while every junkie that ever dropped dead from a shot of dope I sold ‘im passes by like a parade and I’ll have to look ’em all right in the eye. . . . But when I look in there I won’t see nothin’, just empty and black and cold.”
The novel is set during the time of JFK’s assasination. Doc, Graciela and their friends go to see JFK and “Yah-kee” (as Graciela calls her) at the San Antonio airport the day before the tragedy at Dallas. The trip to the airport is a high point of the book and showcases Mr. Earle’s storytelling ability.
Mr. Earle is at his best when he’s inside Doc’s head or when Doc is interacting with Manny. One gets the feeling he knows something about all this, but never to the point that the book seems autobiographical. On the negative side, I found myself wishing for a bit more development of Graciela’s character, and maybe a bit less of Hank.
Near the end, a local priest gets involved, and things get complicated. Perhaps it’s a testament to Mr. Earle’s writing, but when we see where things are headed, we wish the priest had not found his way into the book. Unfortunately, fiction is true; stories have to be told as they are. Mr. Earle remains true to his story.
Like Doc taking in Graciela, reading Mr. Earle’s first novel was more than I bargained for. Just past the halfway point of the book, I realized that what happened to Doc, Graciela and Manny mattered to me. That’s high praise for any story.
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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