ST. LOUIS -- Describing Steve Earle's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" as a story about a skid row junkie abortionist haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams may work as a dust jacket blurb. But it doesn't begin to reveal the depth of the singer-songwriter's debut novel.
Earle, 56, is a political activist, actor and Grammy-winning musician who helped revitalize country music in the mid-'80s and is a leader in the Americana/folk genre today. He has created a fascinating and entertaining novel that is honest, dark and unforgiving in its detailed portrayal of abortion and addiction, two areas of which Earle writes from experience. But its overlying themes of faith and spirituality leave the reader uplifted and hopeful.
He recently called in to talk about the book during a lunch break in Houston, where he was doing in-store performances to promote his new CD, which bears the same title as the book.
"I know what my strength is, and my strength is a yarn," said Earle, who built his reputation on story songs. "I wrote 'Tom Ames' Prayer' and 'Ben McCulloch' by the time I was 19 or 20. So everything I knew about writing was about getting it said really concisely and really quickly and getting a lot of information input into people's brains in a really short period of time."
But after the success in 2003 of "Doghouse Roses," a collection of his short stories, his publisher wanted a full-length novel. Thus began eight years of work on "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," which his editor suggested be based on some legend surrounding music. The book, however, is not about music.
"I'd always heard that there was a doctor traveling with Hank Williams when he died who mysteriously wasn't there when the police came," Earle said. "The doctor was with him when they left Knoxville, but when he was found dead in the back of his car and the police were summoned, they got there and there was no one there but the driver and Hank, deceased in the back seat."
By the time Earle discovered that the person who had been with Williams was not a doctor at all, he had already created the character of Doc Ebersole, a physician who had developed a taste for morphine, lost his license and fed his habit by performing abortions and patching up the inhabitants on the seamy side of San Antonio. Doc sees the country legend's ghost, has long conversations with him and is haunted by the idea that he had provided Williams' fatal dose.
"I decided that my character was more interesting to me," said Earle, who overcame heroin addiction after serving jail time in the mid-'90s. "So I decided to just forge ahead, and it is fiction, after all."
Doc is joined by memorable characters including Manny, his dealer; Marge and Dallas, the lesbian proprietors of the flophouse/whorehouse that Doc lives and practices in; and most importantly Graciella, on whose grace and faith the novel turns. Graciella, a young girl in trouble by her thug boyfriend, comes to Doc for an abortion and stays to live with and assist Doc. As Doc is wracked with guilt about Hank's death, Graciella is wracked with guilt about the abortion.
"Graciella is absolutely convinced that what she's done is wrong," said Earle, whose girlfriend became pregnant when both were 14. She got an abortion masked as a D&C at the Texas hospital where her father was a physician, he said.
"Make no mistake about what my politics are," Earle said. "I'm absolutely uncomfortable about men telling women what to do with their bodies. That's the way I was raised. I'm a real live feminist. ... Politically, it's always been about rich people, their daughters always get abortions when they need them. And people that don't have money, don't, because other people are trying to force their morality on them.
"I'm vehemently opposed to the death penalty. It's my main area of activism. Do I think that abortion is taking a human life? Yes, absolutely. But I don't think the state should have anything to say about that one way or another. ... I think it's killing, I think killing is wrong. But I also live in terror every day that one of the many consequences we're going to suffer for (President George W.) Bush's time in office is that Roe vs. Wade may come apart."
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" is set in 1963, 10 years after Williams' death, and Graciella's ability to transform the lives of the people around her is born during a road trip with Doc, Manny, Marge and Dallas to the San Antonio airport to witness the arrival in Texas of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. The scene operates as a symbol of redemption for the characters, especially Graciella, who cuts her wrist trying to thrust her hand through a chain-link fence to touch Jackie. Her wound never heals, but people around her slowly begin to heal their souls and conquer their vices.
"I didn't know that the Kennedy assassination would come into it until I arbitrarily set the date 10 years after Hank's death," Earle said, "and what happened 10 years after Hank's death? Well, I'm in San Antonio, my dad is an air traffic controller. In 1963, I was 8, and my mother got a call from my dad, who was coming off a midnight shift, 'Hey, keep the kids out of school because Kennedy is going to land here at 10:30.'
"And (Kennedy) was on his way to Dallas, and the next day he was dead. But I was there. That scene is constructed from my memory of going to see Kennedy and Jackie at the San Antonio airport when I was 8."
Spirituality plays a major role in the novel, as it does in Earle's new CD, most explicitly in the track "God is God."
"I believe in God," Earle said. "I'm not a Christian. I'm not a Muslim. I also don't think God's Santa Claus. I'm nowhere near arrogant enough anymore to think that God's existence is dependent on whether I believe in him. There's either a God or there's not. And I could be wrong. I believe there is a God at this point in my life, and I think all my life."
The major part of the novel and the entire CD were written starting about the time Earle's father, Jack Earle, died three years ago.
"I didn't know that the record was about the same things as the book until I finished the record, which is why I gave it the same title," Earle said. "The book was always going to be 'I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive,' for obvious reasons. That's the title of the last record that Hank Williams ever released (after his death).
"My dad had a hard time leaving here, and there was a note to self, maybe: Don't fight so hard. ... I think possibly a lot of what I was thinking about is that maybe we do death worse in the West than anyplace else in the world, in the sense of we see it as the worst thing that can happen to us, to the point where Western theology is mostly about perpetuating the idea of everlasting life.
"And that's kind of what a lot of the stuff is about, death as a comma, it's not the end of everything -- but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get to keep your baseball cards."