The back says: Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams – not just in the figurative sense, not just because Doc was one of the last people to see him alive, and not just because Doc is rumoured to have given Hank the final morphine dose that killed him.
In 1963, ten years after Hank's death, Doc is himself wracked by addiction. Having lost his licence to practice medicine, his morphine habit isn't as easy to support as it used to be. So he lives in a rented room in the red-light district on the south side of San Antonio, performing abortions and patching up the odd knife or gunshot wound.
But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighbourhood in the search of Doc's services, miraculous things begin to happen. Graciela sustains a wound on her wrist that never heals, yet she heals others with the touch of her hand. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except, maybe, for Hank's very angry ghost – who isn't at all pleased to see Doc doing well.
I say: This book was recommended to me by Amazon shortly after I bought Bright's Passage by Josh Ritter. Usually I tend to ignore Amazon's recommendations, but the title of this novel was just too good to pass me by, so I read the synopsis and thought 'oh absolutely yes'. I had never heard of Steve Earle before, and vaguely knew a few Hank Williams songs, but that didn't stop me.
And I’m glad it didn't.
I absolutely love this. Almost everything about it was perfection. Earle's simple and poignant prose somehow managed to turn these otherwise dreary surroundings into something beautiful, and magical. He made me believe that all these seedy characters, who may have had one or two good qualities, would be able to turn their lives around with just the help of a girl. More than anything, he handled the problems of San Antonio (drug abuse, prostitution, abortion, extortion, hopelessness, etc.) in an achingly straightforward and unapologetic way – everyone was a victim of something, but nobody blamed anyone else.
And that caught me off guard.
Since I don't know anything about Hank Williams, I wouldn't be able to say if his ghost in this novel was anything like he was in real life. Nevertheless, I like how angry and frustrated he was portrayed; the way he was scheming and begging, and just making a nuisance of himself. Since we're never told outright why he's attached to Doc, all these little flashbacks and comments that he had, made the story so much richer.
Was it a guilt on Doc's part and accusation on Hank's?
Or regret on Hank's part and the search for redemption on Doc's?
And how did Graciela really fit into the puzzle?
Although I did love the Mexican mythology/spirituality/religious belief that was a big part of the novel, there was an instance with a priest that I felt was a bit out of place. That's the reason why this get a 4.5/5 instead of the full 5 – it just felt a little contrived and didn't flow naturally with the story.
So, I guess now I’ll have to check out Steve Earle's music, because if he can write a novel like this, I wonder what he can do with added music. He also has a collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, that I’m going to have to dig into. Hank Williams may also beckon a closer acquaintance.