On balance, Steve Earle’s novel proved to be as big a hit with Litpoppers as it had with the likes of Patti Smith. Our characteristically well-informed participants speculated how Earle had transformed the often grim realities of his own life into material for the book, and how the choice of Hank Williams spoke as much about the roots of Earle’s music as of his writing.
Part of the power (and essence) of good fiction is the way it generates multiple perspectives on the same phenomena, and this novel had this quality: where Doc Ebersole saw the ghost of ‘Hank’, Graciela saw a spirit to be dealt with, and others saw nothing. Subjectivity complicated reality, and moral judgements about it. We could all be, as Hank Williams sang, ‘lonesome’: cut off, separate, alone in a crowd. Yet Earle cleverly painted this isolation on a bigger scale. If ‘Hank’ was part of Doc’s subconscious, or his guilt, then ‘Hank’ was also a smartly deployed ‘ghost in the machine’ of the American psyche. Whether we believed this or not, and though they won’t have heard the same things, we were told that everyone listened to Hank, rich, disenfranchised, white, Hispanic, gentrified, down-and-out. Even when people didn’t want to hear him – as Doc didn’t – he crept out of jukeboxes to haunt the air.
Yes, while some felt there were some schematic moves in the book, others were surprised at the paths the narrative took. All agreed that Earle had crafted a work that spoke to or of the U.S.’s deepest fears and faultlines: drugs, abortion, porous borders (between countries, classes, the rational and ‘irrational’), political assassination. Was this aggregation of hot late-night, bar-room topics more than the sum of its parts? How did it compare to Earle’s short stories, or, indeed, an album of songs that might conceivably have touched on these topics? And was Earle (or indeed Graciela) offering a way out? The lives and manumissions achieved by those women who had the good fortune to receive Graciela’s miraculous attentions were redemptive, but no structural change seemed on the cards: there’d still be punters, there’d still be people needing a hit of dope to get them through their days and nights. But even in provoking such questions and by raising the spectre that people’s own ‘actions and choices’ determined their fate as much as they conditions and contexts, Earle sought to tackle big themes in an accessible, resonant way.