Tuesday 26 July 2011

'the dead want to be heard'

No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

Hank Williams

I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive
by Steve Earle

I guess most people coming to read this novel will have done so with an awareness of Steve Earle as a musician. I'm a bit weird in that my only experience or Earle had been through watching his turns in first The Wire and then David Simon's Treme. Simon's penchant for using non-actors who had either lived a life similar to that of the characters they were playing or had in fact been the inspiration for characters within the programme found fertile ground in Earle who as a musician and former drug addict fitted in very nicely to the shuffling, bumbling roles of musician Harley in Treme and recovering addict Walon in The Wire. As a writer Earle has previously produced poetry, a play and a collection of stories called Doghouse Roses which drew yet again on his experiences as a musician and addict. In this first novel music and morphine combine once again with mortality and miracles in a period piece that engages with America's struggle with the issue of abortion whilst also providing, if it doesn't seem too absurd to say so, plenty of entertainment along the way.

It is 1963 in San Antonio, Texas. Doc Ebersole's first name may have come from his past as a doctor but with his licence to practice revoked he has become nothing more than a back-street abortionist with a morphine habit to support. His office is a corner of the local bar, his clinic a rented room in the 'shadow world' of the South Presa Strip red-light district, and along with the abortions that are his stock-in-trade there's the odd stabbing or gunshot wound to attend to. The book begins, as every morning must for a morphine addict, with Doc feeling sick and in need of a fix. Having managed to harangue his dealer Manny into giving him enough to at least get straight he adopts his position at a little table at the back of the bar and waits for custom to walk in. Luckily for him he doesn't have to wait long before a tough looking pachuco walks in with a young Mexican girl 'in trouble.' An hour later he is helping her in a way that would have been impossible in the Catholic Mexico she can only recently have left but there are a few complications.

The girl bled profusely and it didn't want to stop. It was touch and go for a while but Doc's hands were rock steady as long as he had enough dope in him, and his fingers remembered what to do even though the morphine had long shrouded his brain in perpetual mist. Without any conscious deliberation, his focus shifted, allowing him to concentrate on the crisis at hand and to forget anything and everything that haunted him, be it whispering voices or the discarded remains of the the fetus in the washbasin on the dresser.

Now, those whispering voices are important because Doc Ebersole is a haunted man. Literally. Rumours abound that he was the man to give Hank Williams the final dose of morphine that killed him and now, ten years later, he lives with that guilt in a very real way, haunted by the ghost of Williams himself, conducting conversations with him as real as with anyone else but particularly when high ('Hank knows that the higher Doc gets, the better he listens, and more than anything else, the dead want to be heard'). The voice of Williams is almost like the devil on Doc's shoulder, tempting him towards each successive hit, partly of course because that is how he can maintain some companionship in his limbo. The arrival of this Mexican girl is a threat to that however, particularly with her protracted recovery and having been abandoned by the man who knocked her up. So what we have here is something like a battle for Doc's soul. After all; Graciela, as she is named, is no ordinary girl.

One defining moment in the novel is the visit of JFK and his wife Jackie to San Antonio (just the day before his fateful motorcade in Dallas). Doc himself isn't that bothered but for the Catholic contingent a visit from the country's first Catholic President is not to be missed and for Graciela in particular there is a strong desire to see 'Yah-kee!' in the flesh. At Brooks Air Force Base the crowds gather and Graciela is sure that there is a moment where Jackie looks right at her.

And she was right. All of the other women in the crowd witnessed it and each and every one believed that it was intended for her, and all their hearts melted into one...But in fact, Jackie was smiling at Graciela and Graciela alone, and only Graciela saw the sadness in her eyes and that sadness became her own. Her grandfather had a name for such moments, the instant in which people like himself and Graciela saw what others could not. He called it la luz. The light. Something sacred passed between between them...
It is at this moment, thrusting her arms through the metal fence that separates them that Graciela scrapes and cuts her wrist. It is almost unnoticed in the excitement but when, after Doc has initially dressed it, it fails to heal quickly he keeps a special eye on this significant mark. With JFK's assassination, funeral, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, there are several days where Doc and his entourage find themselves glued to the television set and it seems to him that Graciela's wound seems to bleed afresh 'whenever...another heartbreaking monochromatic image flickered across Marge's TV.' Graciela slowly becomes something of an assistant to Doc, partly in gratitude to him for helping her but also because of her unique qualities as a healer.

Among her many gifts was an unfailing calmness under pressure, but it wasn't the cool detachment of a good scrub nurse so highly prized in a modern operating room; it was more like the warm, loving patience of the caregivers of another culture, if not another time. She performed each and every task that was asked of her flawlessly and gracefully; no matter how chaotic her surroundings became, she never stopped praying.
And people are healed, miraculously it seems; even Doc manages to kick his habit, and it isn't long before the South Presa Strip is alive with rumours of a miracle-working girl who may carry the marks of the stigmata. These rumblings soon reach the ears of the local Catholic priest, Father Killen, and Earle's plot really kicks into gear. Personally I found the character of Killen the least convincing, he's there really to provide the conflict and plot points that can bring the novel to its conclusion, but it's a small grumble in the book that is enjoyable partly because of its cast of slightly grotesque characters. The need of those living on society's margins for small, everyday miracles is well realised, as is their desire to live a better life. The interplay between Doc, Hank and Graciela is the novel's strongest aspect, particularly in the way that lines are blurred by Doc's drug use, Graciela's spirituality and the shifting realities contained within that room on the South Presa Strip. That shabby neighbourhood is given a fitting eulogy in Earle's  almost affectionate portrait, the buildings as derelict as Doc himself, 'Has-beens; shadows of their former selves waiting around for time to take its slow steady toll.' In the short video below Earle describes some of the influences on the book and the album of the same name. It may deal with junkies, whores, abortion and even the dawn of Vatican II but underlying all of this is a very personal response to mortality. That Earle manages to make it as entertaining as he does is a little miracle all on its own.


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