Requiem for a Dream

Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

The facts of Steve Earle's life come at you like a freight train. Step free of the anger and restless yearning that race through each lyric and note in his music and you'll find the story of a young Texan songwriter who escaped small-town life, struck gold in Nashville, broke hearts, faced down the devil, lost and ended up as lonely as he started.

Banged on by cops, married six times, nearly killed in any number of car wrecks and so hooked on speedballs and crack that he'd plow through $2,000 a week--and all this from the man who in 1986 was hailed as the savior of country music for all the raucous and soulful licks that marked his debut album, "Guitar Album"--hailed, that is, until the early 1990s, when the Beast reared its head and swallowed Earle whole.

But since getting out of a Tennessee prison in 1994, time spent for narcotics possession, he's been on a tear of a different sort. Not only has he released five albums (and earned three Grammy nominations), he has also devoted himself publicly to a 12-step program, fought the death penalty, campaigned against land mines, started his own record label, written a play about Karla Faye Tucker (the first woman executed in Texas in 100 years) and is on the faculty of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.

Not many singer-songwriters make the leap from writing lyrics to fiction. Rosanne Cash tried it in 1996 with "Bodies of Water," a collection of semi-autobiographical stories that succeeded on the merits of her ability to write so close to the bone, and it is Earle's willingness to do the same that makes "Doghouse Roses" such an entertaining read, mining territory--aching love, trapped lives--familiar to those who know him and his music.

Lord knows, it could have been otherwise. His brief chronicle of one junkie's downward plunge, "A Eulogy of Sorts"--filled with as much dead-on, drugged-out anguish and death as has been written in the last wasted 20 years--provides a glimpse.

"You see," says the narrator, explaining his own variety of existentialism, "all junkies travel in ever-narrowing concentric circles until the day they find themselves running for their lives with one foot nailed to the floor, as the Beast bears down on them."

It is a circuit that Earle found himself on not so long ago, and it should come as no surprise that some of the best stories in "Doghouse Roses" have to do with drugs and squandered dreams.

The title story, for instance, begins desperately enough, in a BMW, blasting out of Los Angeles (after a brief detour in East Hollywood to score some rock), headed to El Paso. He's riding shotgun, sucking on his glass pipe. She's got her foot on the accelerator, fighting to break the pull of this city, ready to dump him and his habit at the end of the line. Both of them know how much the drugs have destroyed his life and talent.

"He suspended all pretense of taking care of himself, going for days without showering and living on a steady diet of ice cream and Dr. Pepper." It had gotten that low.

"He only left the house to cop, driving straight home and sitting in the tiny half bath in the hallway for hours with his pipe. He refused to answer the telephone or even play back his messages, and after a while no one called anyway."

It's a picture that Earle, who admits to pawning his guitars and a laptop and guarding a crack house in south Nashville to maintain his supply, deftly paints. Perhaps losing those years in the early '90s explains the empathy he shows toward the lost souls who live within these stories.

In "Wheeler County," a hitchhiker, working his way to California, ends up in a small west Texas town, busted for trying to get a ride on the interstate and for vagrancy. But he soon discovers that he has something in common with the arresting officer: They both served in Vietnam. "He viewed his entire tour of duty as an interruption in his normal life, as if some gargantuan unseen hand had scooped him up and deposited him in someone else's nightmare only to tire of the sport and dropped him back in his world to find his own way home."

He came home to hit the road. The cop came home to be a cop, and here their paths meet. Only gunfire in the end complicates the bond.

It is a story line that Earle picks up again in "The Reunion," in which an American vet and a National Liberation Front soldier meet in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City after the war. One's dying of cancer; the other is there to help him die.

By understanding the capriciousness of fate--whether it's the pull of addiction or a letter from the draft board--Earle is able to explore, however painfully, the elusiveness of redemption. "The Witness" is the meticulous recounting of the hours leading up to the execution by lethal injection of Andres Camacho, an illegal alien from El Salvador, 12 years after the murder of Joan Elliot, told from the point of view of her husband. The story, drawn from Earle's experience witnessing an execution, is made all the more tragic for its picture of the impossibility of real justice.

Redemption, Earle seems to say, is something you have to believe in, and perhaps this leap of faith explains why the best stories in the collection succeed mostly as character sketches in which the past and future--or any plotting that might help explain something like redemption--are less compelling than the here and now.

Indeed, the stories seem at times like songs, trying to get away with the easy ending. But in fiction the tolerances are less forgiving. The narrative must carry more weight than if it were sustained by a guitar and refrain. Fortunately, it is a measure of Earle's hardened vision of the world that, however easy it is to anticipate the course of a character's life or the outcome of a particular story, the getting there is not diminished by the lack of surprise or new insight.

This is especially true in one of the best stories of the collection, "Billy the Kid," a fable-like tale that draws upon Earle's experience as a company songwriter in Nashville before he hit it big.

Told from the point of view of a bar owner, it is the story of Billy Batson, a young musician new to town, the girl who falls for him, the owner of the label that records him, the engineer that mixes his music and the bartender who keeps an eye on it all.

It is a story that succeeds on each character's dream for Billy and on his own sweet charms. "[He] couldn't have been more than twenty, and he looked like he could have been even younger, but when he sang you believed that he had been a foot soldier at the battle of Shiloh or a train robber or a rodeo clown. He had songs that could transport you down to Mexico or across the Rocky Mountains or deep into the Louisiana bayou country. He played guitar hunched over a straight-back chair like an aging Delta bluesman, caressing and massaging the instrument until the rhythm oozed out like sap from a sweetgum tree."

It's classic Earle. A story whose ending is filled with the melancholy that comes from living with your heart exposed, in which the reality of loss is balanced only by the exultation of having lived.

This is the message that Earle brings to his music and to these stories. And as he stands there with the wreckage of his life strewn around him, you come to realize that he's not out trying to prove something or make up for lost time or even redeem himself. He probably doesn't even believe in redemption. He's simply trying to keep the demons at bay, and "Doghouse Roses" is just enough to keep them outside the door. For now.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 12, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction Album title--In Book Review (June 10), the name of Steve Earle's first album, "Guitar Town," was incorrectly identified.
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