I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
By Steve Earle
An abortionist, a whore, and a dope dealer walk into a bar…
Is this the latest dumb joke making the rounds? Nope. This is the lineup of main characters in Steve Earle’s new book, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” It’s set in the slums of San Antonio and in the beginning, the book feels contrived – how many times do we have to listen to musicians venerate drug use?
In addition, almost immediately it becomes apparent that Doc, the main character, not only smokes dope, but also performs abortions (prior to Roe v. Wade in the 1960s) to support his habit. Living and working out of a boarding house run by closet lesbians, Doc treats the menagerie of hookers, pimps, and other unfortunate youth who show up at his door looking for help. (Rush Limbaugh just had an aneurysm.) Add in Hank Williams as a ghost and the good times can begin. A book with such a Burroughsesque beginning should not be so enjoyable.
And yet, buried under the miles of hard living, baggage, and dirt, the novel’s heart begins to beat. After an encounter with then President Kennedy and “Yah-kee” at the San Antonio airport, something special begins happening on the South Presa Strip. Hookers stop turning tricks, dope fiends stop buying dope, and even Doc manages to kick his habit. Turns out there is redemption for the wicked if only they visit the Yellow Rose Guest House.
This may be the best book I’ve read so far this year, even though it is sneaky about its greatness. The characters are hard to love and the setting calls for a shower after every chapter, but there is no pretense. Doc and friends are unapologetically who they are and they understand that change is a necessary, and hopefully desirable, part of life. Earle has been writing great story songs for years, but it can be difficult to turn a three-minute song into a full-length novel (just ask any Saturday Night Live writer…Night at the Roxbury, anyone?) Here, Earle succeeds beautifully, even though, or maybe because, life is messy.
Earle is has released a CD of the same title. I’ll take a listen to it and letcha know how it sounds…