Many, many years ago, before there was an internet, before there were cell phones, odd people who became obsessed with factlets (a term I’ve invented for facts that interest only you) would, if they lived in New York City, pick up the phone and call the reference number for the New York Public Library. A librarian, a bona fide human being (businesses did not use voice mail in those days) would answer the phone, repeat your query, put you on hold, trot off to who-knew-where, and return with your answer. “The population of Montana is 800,000, ma’am,” a hushed, respectful voice would say. “Do you have any other questions?”
In that age, known to paleontogists as the early 80’s, I was in college and working at a small publishing company which published a newsletter about publishing. So, yes, plenty of oddballs there – who else would agree to the salary? – with lots of questions for the New York Public Library hotline who responded to answers of both the work-related (population, circulation) and of the who-wrote-the-book-of-love variety.
“I know that Hank Williams died in the back seat of a car,” I told one of these saintly librarians one day thirty years ago, the receiver of the phone cradled in my neck while I typed subscription renewal notices on an IBM Selectric I coveted. “But what I want to know is, what kind of car?”
“It was a robin’s egg-blue ’52 Cadillac with a Continental wheel,” the librarian whispered when he came back on the line, with, I thought, a gratifying level of excitement. That was the thing about those librarians. If you asked them something really odd, because you were odd, and a novelist (“Did Egypt have eggplant in Cleopatra’s time?”) they became information detectives: they wanted to know as much as you did.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the novel II’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. I read it this weekend. I would have read it in one sitting except that circumstances forced me to leave home, to gather food and drink, and to do all the other things that take one away from the urgency of story.
I have a complex relationship with Earle, further tangled by the fact that this relationship exists only in my head. Suffice to say, after much badgering on the part of my friend Linda, I have come to accept him as my own personal troubadour. I really liked his collection of short stories.
And I really like this novel.
We open the life of Doc, a defrocked hophead physician who stitches up the dealers and the johns and takes care of the whores in the slums of San Antonio in 1963. President Kennedy and his wife Yah-Kee (as she is known among the adoring illegal Catholic Mexican population of Texas) are soon to touch down on their way to Dallas.
Doc feels responsible for the death of Hank Williams – was it Doc’s shot of morphine which pushed Hank over the edge? – and then he comes to feel responsible for Graciela, the teenaged Mexican girl who is brought to him for a back-alley abortion and then abandoned and then … well, I can’t tell you.
This novel is fantastically imaginative, compassionate, engaging and American. I think if you read it, you will know what I mean by that, and appreciate it.
Originally published Sunday, June 26, 2011