Tuneless music, tortured lives

Hell is getting what you want first thing in the morning, when it's the last thing in the world you need.

Hell is the life led by Doc Ebersole, the man at the mangled heart of

Steve Earle

's unforgettable new novel about music, life, death, addiction, history, ghosts and glory. Doc awakens each day with a clawing thirst for drugs, until he can get his shaking hands on the dough and the dealer — in that order — that can help him slake that terrible need.


Yet Doc is distinct from the other junkies, not to mention the prostitutes, petty thieves and full-time connivers, who populate his block in San Antonio in 1963, which is where and when Earle's story is set.

His confidant is a ghost — and not just any ghost: The ghost of Hank Williams (1923-1953), the yodeling beanpole and songwriting genius who came up with such gems as "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

The real-life Williams died from a combination of drugs, alcohol and despair — not necessarily in that order — and it makes sense that he'd hang around the earth a while, even after succumbing in the back seat of his car on his way to a gig in

West Virginia


Earle, of course, is best known as a songwriter, but only a natural-born novelist could make a sober reader believe that Hank is really there, moving in the shadows, probably trying to bum a few bucks for a snort and a pack of smokes from the devil himself:



," Earle writes. "A sharp, dry kind of cold, deep down where the marrow in his bones used to be, but he doesn't shiver and he doesn't shake. In fact, he hardly notices at all. Hank's been cold for as long as he can remember now, and it's only when some errant echo of human warmth accidentally strays into his colorless domain that he even bothers to give it a name."

Doc is not dead, the way Hank is, but you could be forgiven for not noticing much of a difference in their lifestyles. Doc, too, is cold and broken. He uses his medical skills — once upon a time he was a physician — to perform illegal abortions and to patch up his fellow bums when their quarrels escalate to the bloodletting stage. He has no illusions about his clientele: "They cut and they shot and they pounded their neighbors' faces into bloody pulp and strangled their own best drinking buddies with their bare hands, but Doc tried not to judge."

Then something magical happens. Doc finds — or is found by — Graciela, 18 years old and enamored of him. The alliance is sweet and fragile and redemptive. And it irritates the heck out of Hank's ghost, who squints and frets and plots, determined to drag Doc back from the brink of happiness.

There are funny, poignant subplots as well, such as the day when Doc and his pals pile into a car and drive to the airport. They've gotten wind that President John Kennedy and his wife will be arriving there. They want a glimpse of him, this impossibly handsome man and his unbearably beautiful wife.


The true beauty of "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" lies in Earle's prose, which is rich and wild and — this part won't surprise you one bit — musical. Make no mistake: The author doesn't romanticize Doc's degenerate world. The scenes in which Doc tries to kick his


addiction are gruesome: "His


felt like an acid-lined exoskeleton, unshed and at least two sizes too small."

Earle, who conquered his own heroin addiction, knows this world well.

But the beauty still bleeds through, like a dark paint beneath a lighter coat. Earle has supplemented his novel with an album of the same name. That might be overkill, because his paragraphs move with their own raw rhythm. Listen as Hank's ghost explains the difference between "lonely" and "lonesome."

And he should know:

"Lonely's a temporary condition, a cloud that blocks out the sun for a spell and then makes the sunshine seem even brighter after it travels along. … Lonesome's a whole other thing. Incurable. Terminal. A hole in your heart you could drive a semi truck through. … Both Doc and Hank crossed over that line between lonely and lonesome a long time ago."

The question is: Can you ever cross back?

Steve Earle will read from his novel at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. For information, call 773-728-6000.

Twitter @litkell