THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, November 23, 2015


Steve Earle

No matter how I struggle and strive/
I’ll never get out of this world alive. – Hank Williams

Stop me if you have heard this one:

A defrocked morphine-addicted physician, his pusher (who is also his best friend), two hookers (who operate the Yellow Rose Resort Home, a hotel that also serves as brothel, emergency room, and abortion clinic), a mysterious teenaged Mexican girl (who is in the country illegally), and Hank Williams (well, not Hank exactly, but his ghost) walk into a bar.

The punch line is Steve Earle’s debut novel which is populated by the above group of misfits who as a group do go into a bar at one point in the story.

The title comes from the last Hank Williams song to be released prior to his death on January 1, 1953. He was twenty-nine years old when he died in the backseat of his Cadillac on the way to a concert date. Written by Williams and Fred Rose, the song was meant to be humorous and ironic, but the irony took on a different tone after the singer’s death. It quickly soared to the top of the country charts.

Apparently a doctor had been summoned to give Williams an injection of vitamins mixed with morphine to help him cope with the chronic back pain caused by the spina bifida he was born with, which caused him great misery throughout his lifetime and had caused him to become addicted. The drug mixed with the alcohol that he was consuming at the time has been given as the explanation for his death.

In an interview Steve Earle stated that he always believed that a doctor was travelling with Williams and that it was he who administered the injection, but who then skedaddled when it became apparent that Williams wasn’t going to survive.

It is that imagined doctor, Doc Ebersole, who is the central character in the novel. Due to his morphine addiction, he has lost his license to practice, but practice he does in the Yellow Rose Resort Home in San Antonio’s red light district where he finally landed after leaving Louisiana. Among his patients are the wounded and maimed and uninsured, who avoid hospital emergency rooms because they would be asked questions that they do not want to answer.

ut those are not the patients who provide him with most of the income that he needs to feed his drug habit. Because the year is 1963, and because it is ten years before Roe v. Wade, the doctor’s room in the Yellow Rose is not only an emergency room, it is also an abortion clinic. The doctor justifies his performance of the illegal procedures on the basis that the women he serves are poor. The rich, he says, can always get an illegal, but safe, abortion, but the poor can’t. At least, he rationalizes, when they come to him their lives will not be unduly jeopardized.

Oh, did I mention that he is haunted by Hank Williams’ ghost? He and the ghost are able to engage in conversation, but their relationship is an uneasy one. Hank often asks Doc for morphine to ease his back pain and Doc refuses on the ground that it is impossible to inject a ghost and besides he says that Hank is “as pitiful an excuse for a ghost as he was as a human being.”

Doc’s life is changed after performing an abortion on Graciela, an illegal Mexican immigrant, who is only a teenager. She not only has a positive transformative effect on Doc, but by some mysterious and magical way she also changes the lives of others with whom she comes into contact.

I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, so that’s enough about the plot. But I will add that the grim story is lightened somewhat by moments of humor – dark humor, to be sure – but humor nevertheless.

A mixture of reality and mysticism – what has come to be called magical-realism – doesn’t always work for me. There is a fragile balance between the two elements that has to be maintained but I believe Earle successfully maintained that balance. The critic for the LA Times put it best: “Earle is pointing out that reality can merge with myth in the service of a larger truth.”

The realism element in Earle’s story stems from the fact that he grew up near San Antonio and knows the town. He also knows the people who populate his novel since he was arrested for possession of heroin in 1993 and cocaine and the illegal possession of firearms a year later. He was sentenced to a year in jail but was released after serving two months. He recently separated from his seventh wife, actually his sixth, since he was married twice to one wife.

The magical element, on the other hand, is the product of a tremendously creative brain. He is not only a singer and song writer, but he is also a poet and a playwright and an actor, and has published a short story collection that received good notices. And now he has written a novel that is being developed as a film.

And he is a musician who plays the guitar, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and bouzouki. If you don’t recognize that last instrument by that name perhaps you know it by one of its two other names --trichordo or tetrachordo – or perhaps not. 

Click on the picture and you can hear Hank sing "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

In the fall of 2006, I drove from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico and walked into the Kit Carson Home and Museum. When I entered I spotted an individual sitting behind one table while another nearby table held a stack of books. It was obvious that he was a writer promoting a book.

Taos, which hosts a number of festivals and celebrations every year, can be a busy little village at times, but not that day. There wasn’t much going on. In fact, there were only two other visitors besides me in the museum and they were indicating no interest in the book. More out of a sense of compassion than anything else, I walked over to the table containing the books, and when I looked at the cover I immediately recognized the author’s name. It was Hampton Sides.

I recognized his name because I had just recently read one of his other books. Ghost Soldiers, published in 2001, the story of a successful World War II mission to liberate over five hundred POW's being held in the Philippines, including the last survivors of the Bataan Death March, was a well-told tale of heroism.

I thought Ghost Soldiers was an excellent book about a little known, but extraordinary event and this new book, Blood and Thunder, really aroused my curiosity, too. It is the story of a controversial chapter in the life of Kit Carson. Most people know that he was a mountain man, trapper, explorer and scout, but few know that he was a union officer during the Civil War, and that in that position he played a major role in the brutal subjugation and repression of the Navajos. 

So, what more appropriate place to promote a book about Kit Carson than in the Kit Carson Home and Museum? Appropriate, yes; successful, no.

Naturally, I purchased a copy, not out of compassion, but because I was hooked by the subject matter. Because nobody else was taking up any of his time, I not only had a signed first edition, but I was able to hold a rather lengthy conversation with him, in which I was able to tell him how much I had admired his earlier book. I found out that he was a native of Memphis, Tennessee and that he lived in Santa Fe, which is not all that far from Taos. It turned out to be a good day for me, but I'm afraid not a profitable one for him.

Well, you may know that the critics praised Blood and Thunder to high heaven and that the book became a best seller, and that a film adaptation is even in the works.

In 2010, Hellhound on His Trail was another critical and popular success. The subtitle tells the tale: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.  And it too may become a film.

It goes without saying that a lot of readers besides me have discovered Hampton Sides. The critical acclaim for all three has been, as far as I can tell, almost universal.

What could he possibly write that would top his other books? Well, how about writing about an arctic expedition that nobody remembers? Not a good idea? But how many people knew about that WWII rescue mission or Kit Carson's Civil War experiences?

The result is In the Kingdom of Ice and I think it is as good, and in some respects even better, than his other work. The subtitle tells us much about this book, too: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette. It is the story of George Washington DeLong’s attempt in 1879 to sail his ship and its crew to the North Pole. The expedition was based on the faulty notion that if a ship could break through the ice barrier that it would sail into an open polar sea. Unfortunately, after only two months the ship, the three-masted and steam-powered Jeannette, became entrapped in ice at the 72nd parallel and remained confined for two years, drifting with the ice pack. 

What follows is a harrowing tale of gritty and desperate determination by the crew of thirty-three to survive and return home despite the fact that they were a thousand miles from the nearest land.

Because I don’t want to ruin the story for others, I choose not to reveal what happened thereafter.

Sides’ great strength is that he is not only a thorough researcher and talented writer, but that he also knows how to tell a story. He graduated college with a degree in American history, but his background is in magazine journalism. Thus, he is an historian who became a journalist, rather than the other way around, which is more often the case. He is editor at large for Outdoor magazine and has written for various other publications including National Geographic and The New Yorker.

His work reminds me of that of three other writers whose admirable storytelling skills are such that they are able to write nonfiction that reads like a novel. Those three are Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger, and Nathaniel Philbrick. I once thought that Sides might someday rank with those writers, but I now think that with his latest book he has surpassed them.

Hampton Sides