Steve Earle's characters have always been a little bit haunted.
As a Grammy-winning country-rock musician, he's written about condemned men, agonized war vets and desperate working-class families. And as a cast member of David Simon's "The Wire," he played a spectral ex-junkie, a man who comforted kindred spirits but was always shadowed by his own harrowing experiences.
So it's no surprise that his gritty first novel, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," is a ghost story about the hell that is addiction.
Set in San Antonio in 1963, the book focuses on Doc Ebersole, an ex-physician and heroin addict who was once a close friend of country crooner Hank Williams (the book shares its title with one of Williams' hits). Although the singer's been dead for more than a decade, they still chat almost daily. Hank's ghost likes to drop by and insinuate that it was Doc who got him hooked on painkillers -- and to tease Doc for his inability to kick his own drug problem.
Doc supports his habit by providing under-the-table medical services for the local working class, and it's in this capacity that he meets Graciela, a young Mexican who appears to be haunted in a very different way.
At the request of her boyfriend, Doc performs an abortion on ailing Graciela, after which he nurses her back to health when the boyfriend is nowhere to be found. This, Earle writes, leaves her with nowhere to live: "Graciela had committed, in the eyes of her mother's God, the most unforgivable of all sins, and she could never, ever go home again."
Suddenly a roommate of Doc's, Graciela insists that they try to catch a glimpse of the visiting John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy when they land at a Texas airfield. There, Graciela suffers a minor cut on her wrist, but nobody thinks anything of it -- especially in light of the news that shakes the nation later that week, when the president is assassinated in Dallas.
Before long, though, Graciela takes on aspects of an otherworldly being, seemingly able to heal others' physical and spiritual wounds with the touch of her fingertips. In her presence, prostitutes trade the street corner for the church pew, and drug dealers renounce the hustler's trade. "(T)o Doc's amazement she seemed to be able to locate the source of any complaint instinctively," Earle writes, "though her methodology left him more than a little uncomfortable."
And all the while, as she soothes so many in her midst, Graciela's wrist keeps bleeding.
Her wounds, are they stigmata? Is Graciela a spiritual eminence sent to inspire the denizens of a seedy district of San Antonio?
Readers of various spiritual leanings will differ on the answers to these questions. Yet it seems clear that even as it invokes "miracles," spirits and mysterious cures, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" isn't trying to convert anyone.
Earle's novel isn't necessarily about religion or God. But it is about faith -- the faith that a pair of haunted souls manage to find in one another.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.