Don’t be surprised if Steve Earle emerges as a juggler in his next artistic reincarnation. And there’s sure to be one. In this, his first published novel, the singer/songwriter/playwright/actor/radio host (and who knows what else) expertly juggles some of most sharply defined characters since John Steinbeck trotted out his procession of hard-luck cases and societal throwaways.
The setting is a grimy stretch of South Presa Street in San Antonio in 1963/64. The neighborhood is populated by dope dealers, prostitutes, cops on the take and a particularly intriguing abortionist and heroin addict named Doc Ebersole. Once a legitimate physician, Ebersole has spiraled downward to a life of daily desperation. But addiction isn’t the sum of Doc’s woes. He’s also afflicted by the persistent ghost of Hank Williams. It appears, at least as this story goes, that Doc was one of Hank’s drug suppliers and may even have been with him on that night 10 years ago when the tormented singer died in the back seat of his Cadillac. Hank doesn’t so much haunt Doc as annoy him with his post-mortem neediness.
At first, these losers seem repellent. But gradually and without authorial sleight-of-hand or sentimentality, Earle reveals the gold inside each of them. That revelation begins when Doc performs an abortion on an 18-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant named Graciela. Like the other denizens of that predominately Catholic community, Graciela is fascinated by the grace and beauty of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, whom she calls “Yah-kee.” When it’s announced that the Kennedys will be stopping in San Antonio on their way to Dallas, Graciela, Doc, Manny the drug dealer, Teresa the bartender and a handful of others pile into a car and race to the airport to get a glimpse of their beloved Yah-kee and America’s first Catholic president. Kennedy is killed the next day, Yak-kee majestic even in her grief, and gloom envelops the South Presa strip.
Tapping into both her Catholic and aboriginal reservoirs of wisdom, the mystical Graciela becomes the story’s transformative figure, even as Doc and Hank continue to blur the boundaries between life and death. The story grows more complex when a local priest hears of Graciela’s seemingly supernatural healing powers and takes it upon himself to investigate.
Earle’s own bouts with addiction, his Texas heritage and his grounding in country music enable him to make this cast of wildly disparate characters not just believable but important. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive debut novel than this one.