Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" by Steve Earle

Steve Earle is a pretty fantastic musician, and with his terrific debut novel, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, he's proven his talent as a writer as well. This is a tremendously well-written and creative book with characters that slowly reveal themselves to be more complex and sympathetic than you might think, and a plot that mixes despair and hope with a little bit of mysticism.

It's the fall of 1963 in a rundown neighborhood of San Antonio. Doc Ebersole is a disgraced former physician struggling with a severe morphine addiction—and he's being haunted by the ghost of his former patient and fishing buddy, Hank Williams. (The rumor is that Doc gave Williams the morphine shot that might have killed him.) Doc lives in a boarding house and, in an effort to support his habit, treats the local criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers for sexually transmitted diseases, gun and knife wounds, and other injuries and illnesses—and performs abortions for women who find themselves "in trouble." Into this mess comes Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant in need of Doc's services. She stays with Doc after she recovers, and after she sustains a wound that won't seem to heal, she discovers her ability to heal Doc's patients and send them on the road to a new life. But not everyone is happy about these supposed miracles—including the local clergy nor Hank Williams' ghost.

This book really took me by surprise. When I started reading it I thought it would be a harrowing story of a man near the end of his rope, struggling with a debilitating addiction yet trying to help others to feed his habit. But Doc was much more complex than I expected, and the people that surrounded him, including Graciela, were layered, fascinating people. I even found the mystical parts of the book enjoyable, although I felt the subplot with the local priest to be a bit unnecessary. Even as I had suspicions where the book would go, I savored every page. Earle is a talented writer, and he has created a fascinating little world that might not be pretty or happy, but it sure is interesting. Great book.

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