A brilliant tale of regret and redemption haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams, Steve Earle's debut novel brings to life an obscure piece of music history.
“Steve Earle brings to his prose the same authenticity, poetic spirit, and cinematic energy he projects in his music. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is like a dream you can’t shake, offering beauty and remorse, redemption in spades.” —Patti Smith
“Shot through with humor and insight and . . . enough action and intriguing characters in it to keep readers turning pages.” —Boston Globe
Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams. Literally.
In 1963, ten years after he may have given Hank the morphine shot that killed him, Doc has lost his license. Living in the red-light district of San Antonio, he performs abortions and patches up the odd knife wound to feed his addiction. But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighborhood in search of Doc’s services, miraculous things begin to happen. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except, maybe, for Hank’s angry ghost—who isn’t at all pleased to see Doc doing well.
Doc woke up sick, every cell in his body screaming for morphine
— head pounding — eyes, nose, and throat burning. His
back and legs ached deep down inside and when he tried to sit up
he immediately doubled over, racked with abdominal cramps. He
barely managed to make it to the toilet down the hall before his
guts turned inside out.
Just like every day. Day in, day out. No pardon, no parole. Until
he got a shot of dope in him, it wasn’t going to get any better.
Doc knew well that the physical withdrawal symptoms were
nothing compared with the deeper demons, the mind-numbing
fear and heart-crushing despair that awaited him if he didn’t get
his ass moving and out on the street. The worst part was that
three quarters of a mile of semi-molten asphalt and humiliation
lay between him and his first fix, and every inch would be an insistent
reminder of just how far he had fallen in the last ten years.
In the old days, back in Bossier City, all Doc had to do was sit
up and swing his needle-ravaged legs over the edge of the bed
and his wake-up shot was always right there on the nightstand,
loaded up and ready to go.
Well, almost always. Sometimes he would wake in the middle
of the night swearing that someone was calling his name.
When morning came he was never sure that it wasn’t a dream
until he reached for his rig and found it was empty. Even then, he
had only to make his way to the medication cabinet in his office
downstairs to get what he needed — pure, sterile morphine sulfate
measured out in precise doses in row after tidy row of little glass
bottles. And he was a physician, after all, and there was always
more where that came from.
“But that was then,” sighed Doc. The sad truth was that, these
days, he had to hustle like any other hophead on the street, trading
his services for milk-sugar– and quinine-contaminated heroin
that may very well have made its way across the border up
San Antonio, Texas, was less than a day’s drive from New Orleans
but Doc had come there via the long, hard route, slipping
and sliding downhill every inch of the way. Consequences of his
own lack of discretion and intemperance had driven him from his
rightful place in Crescent City society before his thirtieth birthday.
In one desperate attempt after another to escape his not-sodistant
past he had completed a circuit of the Gulf Coast in a little
over a decade, taking in the seamier sides of Mobile, Gulfport,
and Baton Rouge. But when he landed in Bossier City, Shreveport’s
black-sheep sister across the Red River, he reckoned that
he had finally hit bottom.
But he was wrong.
The South Presa Strip on the south side of San Antonio was
a shadow world, even in broad daylight. Squares drove up and
down it every day, never noticing this transaction taking place in
that doorway or even wondering what the girls down on the corner
were up to. The pimps and the pushers were just as invisible
to the solid citizens of San Antonio as the undercover cops who
parked in the side streets and alleyways and watched it all come
down more or less the same way, day after day, were.
Doc stepped out into the street. The block and a half between
the Yellow Rose Guest Home and the nearest shot of dope was
an obstacle course, and every step was excruciating; nothing but
paper-thin shoe leather separating broken pavement and raw
nerve. The sun seemed to focus on the point on the back of his
neck that was unprotected by the narrow brim of his Panama hat
and burn through his brain to the roof of his mouth. He spat every
few feet but could not expel the taste of decay as he ran the
gauntlet of junkies and working girls out early or up all night and
every bit as sick as he was.
There was a rumor on the street that Doc had a quantity of
good pharmaceutical dope secreted away somewhere in the dilapidated
boarding house. The other residents had torn the place
apart several times, even prying up the floorboards, and found
nothing. Of course, that didn’t stop some of the more gullible
among the girls from trying to charm the location out of him
from time to time.
Doc never emphatically denied the stories, especially when he
He turned leftat the liquor store, slipping around to the parking
lot in back where Big Manny the Dope Man lounged against
the fender of his car every morning serving the wake-up trade.
“Manny, my friend, can you carry me until about lunchtime?
Just a taste so I can get straight.”
Big Manny was his handle, but in fact, big was simply too
small a word to do the six-foot-five, two-hundred-and-eighty-
odd-pound Mexican justice. Gargantuan would have been more
accurate if anybody on South Presa besides Doc could have pronounced
it, but everyone just called Manny Castro Big Manny.
Doc shivered in the pusher’s immense shadow but Manny was
shaking his head before Doc got the first word out.
“I don’ know, Doc. You still ain’t paid me for yesterday. ¡Me
lleva la chingada! Fuckin’ Hugo!” He snatched a small paper sack
from beneath the bumper of his car and lateraled it to a rangy
youth loitering nearby. “¡Vamanos!” Manny coughed, and the kid
took off like a shot across the parking lot and vanished over the
The portly plainclothes cop never broke his stride, barely acknowledging
the runner and producing no ID or warrant as he
crossed the lot in a more or less direct line to where Manny, Doc,
and a handful of loiterers were already turning around and placing
their hands on the hood of Manny’s car.
Detective Hugo Ackerman rarely hurried even when attempting
to catch a fleeing offender. He had worked narcotics for over a
decade, and in his experience neither the junkies nor the pushers
were going far. He caught up with everybody eventually.
“That’s right, gentlemen, you know how the dance goes. Hands
flat, legs spread. Anybody got any needles or knives, best you tell
He started with Manny, haphazardly frisking him from just
below his knees up, about as far as Hugo could comfortably bend
over. His three-hundred-pound mass was all the authority he
needed to hold even a big man like Manny in place, leaving his
chubby hands free to roam at will.
“How’s business, Manny. You know, I just come from Junior
Trevino’s spot. He looked like he was doing pretty good to me.”
“Junior!” Manny snorted. “¡Pendejo! That shit he sells wouldn’t
get a fly high, he steps on it so hard! Anybody that gets their dope
from Junior’s either a baboso or they owe me money. Hey! You
see Bobby Menchaca down there? I want to talk to that maricón.”
When Hugo shoved his hand down the back of Manny’s slacks,
the big man winced.
“Chingada madre, Hugo! Careful down there. My pistol’s in
the glove box if that’s what you’re lookin’ for. Your envelope’s
where it always is.”
“That’s Detective Ackerman to you, asshole!” Hugo continued
to grope around, emptying Manny’s pockets onto the hood of the
Ford and intentionally saving the inside of his sport coat for last
and then pocketing the envelope he found there.
“Ain’t you heard? Bobby’s in t...
"A deft, big-spirited novel about sin, faith, redemption, and the family of man ... You keep reading and you keep believing."
“Steve Earle brings to his prose the same authenticity, poetic spirit, and cinematic energy he projects in his music. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is like a dream you can’t shake, offering beauty and remorse, redemption in spades.”
“Shot through with humor and insight and ... enough action and intriguing characters in it to keep readers turning pages.”
“Earle’s writing never lacks heart.”
—New York Times Book Review
“As he does in his songs, Earle finds the tenuous points of emotional connection between characters who are living not only on the edges of their own ability to cope, but often on the very margins of society itself.”
"This subtle and dramatic book is the work of a brilliant songwriter who has moved from song to orchestral ballad with astonishing ease."
"Earle has delivered plenty of potent messages during his turbulent career, but he has never pricked the public’s conscience in as many different ways ... The renegade troubadour-turned-renaissance man ... challenge[s] audiences to think about mortality, redemption, addiction, artistic commitment and other soul-searing questions."
"Raw, honest and unafraid, this novel veers in and out of the lives of its many memorable characters with flawless pitch. Steve Earle has given us dozens of remarkable songs, he has given us a dazzling collection of short stories, and now here’s his first novel, a doozy from a great American storyteller."
"Earle is pointing out that in fiction reality can merge with myth in the service of a larger truth . . . [I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive] aspires to a certain gritty transcendence . . . [and] comes with a mythic underpinning, a touch of the mysteries."
—Los Angeles Times
"Iconic country-rocker Earle’s imaginative first novel follows the troubled life of Doc Ebersole, who may have supplied the shot of morphine that killed country legend Hank Williams . . . Earle draws on the rough-and-tumble tenderness in his music to create a witty, heartfelt story of hope, forgiveness, and redemption."
"This is an impressive debut novel. The characters are unforgettable, and the plot moves like a fast train. A fantastic mixture of hard reality and dark imagination."
"Earle has created a potent blend of realism and mysticism in this compelling, morally complex story of troubled souls striving for a last chance at redemption. Musician, actor, and now novelist—is there another artist in America with such wide-ranging talent?"
"In this spruce debut novel . . . hard-core troubadour Earle ponders miracles, morphine, and mortality . . .With its Charles Portis vibe and the author’s immense cred as a musician and actor, this should have no problem finding the wide audience it deserves."
"This richly imagined novel not only takes its title from a Hank Williams classic, it audaciously employs Hank’s ghost as a combination of morphine demon and guardian angel . . . Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé."
—Kirkus, starred review
"What a delight to read this novel and find so many elements I’ve admired in Steve Earle’s songwriting for nearly twenty-five years. It is a rich, raw mix of American myth and hard social reality, of faith and doubt, always firmly rooted in a strong sense of character."
"Steve Earle writes like a shimmering neon angel."
"Earle’s first novel provides a haunting and haunted bookend to Irving’s Cider House Rules. The ghost of Hank Williams walks through this abortionist’s tale that has much to do with grace and aging and death—and the power of the feminine. Gritty and transcendent, Earle has successfully created his own potion of Texas, twang, and dope-tinged magic-realism."
"Everyone knows that Steve Earle ranks among the very best, and most authentic, songwriters in the history of America. With his first novel, Earle has established himself as one of our most knowledgeable and sympathetic writers period. He is a natural-born storyteller. If Jesus were to return tomorrow to 21st-century America, and do some street preaching on the gritty South Presa Strip of San Antonio, he’d love Earle’s magnificently human, big-hearted drifters. Only the man who wrote "Copperhead Road" could have authored I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
—Howard Frank Mosher
"A poignant story of madness and redemption woven into a tapestry of real world desperation and old world magic. It’s colorful, cool, and downright gripping."
—Robert Earl Keen
"The best book I’ve read since The Road. With the lure of Hank Williams’ ghost, a touch of the Kennedy assassination, a little Castaneda and a few miracles, he takes on the underworld and organized religion, and reality as it’s generally supposed, with great certainty and research and style."
—R. B. Morris
"Steve Earle astonishes us yet again. Country Rock’s outlaw legend brings the ghost of Hank Williams to life in a gloriously gritty first novel that soars like a song. And echoes in the heart."
"I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive reads like the best of Steve Earle’s story songs, which means real good. The tale of a more charmingly haunted, trying-to-do-the-right-thing dope fiend you won’t easily find."
"Outsider artists like Steve Earle bring a breath of fresh air to the literary world. I just wish they’d come around more often. Richly imagined and handily crafted—a mighty fine piece of storytelling."
—Madison Smartt Bell
"Perhaps only another great country singer would have the courage to cast [country singer Hank] Williams in the guise of a malignant hillbilly harpy, whose presence inevitably heralds imminent doom . . . And though the novel comes no closer to establishing the facts of Hank Williams’s death, it certainly reveals a good deal of the truth behind it."
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