A thematically ambitious debut novel that draws from the writer’s experience yet isn’t simply a memoir in the guise of fiction.
Since “write what you know” is the axiom of most fledgling authors, it’s no surprise that the first novel by the acclaimed singer-songwriter who previously published a collection of short stories (Doghouse Roses, 2001) should be steeped in the cultures of San Antonio (his hometown), country music (his early musical focus) and drug addiction (which almost killed him). Yet 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, whose presence initially can only be witnessed by Doc, the novelist’s protagonist. Ten years earlier, Doc was Hank’s companion and fishing buddy, one of the last to see the country singer alive, and perhaps the cause of his death. By the time of this novel, set in 1963, Doc has lost his license, his home and any reason to live beyond his daily fix. He supports himself by performing cheap abortions, which is how he meets the teenage Mexican immigrant who will prove a miracle worker not only in Doc’s life but throughout the story. Graciela (who refuses to be called “Grace,” though that’s what she embodies) stays with Doc after he performs her abortion, helping assist him in a procedure that her religion considers a mortal sin, and somehow develops a miraculous healing power that not only helps Doc kick his addiction but provides salvation to so many of the San Antonio neighborhood’s other hookers and junkies. “There was something that was at once humbling and empowering about her very presence in his life,” Earle writes. With a plot that encompasses the Kennedy assassination along with the life and death of Hank Williams, and which draws a thematic line between spirituality and the religion which purports to embody it, the novel occasionally stumbles in its ambition but builds to a transcendent climax.
Already well-respected for both his music and his acting, Earle can now add novelist to an impressive résumé.