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.
But 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.