This is a review of Steve Earle's very fine book of stories by someone who thinks pop songs are the greatest achievement of our time. Suddenly I was in Puebla, Mexico without having finished this review. Puebla is thick with radios and dogs, both very loud, plus more cars moving faster on fewer working parts, belching a powerful gray exhaust whose diesel tang put me in mind of Rome and London. I came here with my two-year-old and his mother. Our hostess lives in what is little more than a pile of rocks, and has a maid. Everything the two-year-old touches might kill him. Last night the streets sounded like a slaughterhouse, and I imagined that all of Mexico was a vast graveyard of dogs. I was told I could have Vicodin, cheap, simply by asking, but in fact no one in Puebla has ever heard of Vicodin. Not even codeine is sold here, and so I tried Catalfan, which only made me dizzy and thoughtless.
Several of Steve Earle's short stories concern addicts on the far side of recognizing their troubles, and while they are still blind to it, the nasty trajectory of their addictions is made obvious to the reader. I didn't like these stories. They required a kind of cold, even superior, attitude from the narrator who was (symptomatically) third person. In his totally awesome pop songs, Earle rarely resorts to the third person, and never strays away from a pervasive, transforming empathy with his subjects. Two 'druggy' stories in this collection recast the characters as emblems of something that troubles the narrator, and these lost my interest. Mind you, a third, "A Eulogy of Sorts" (which tells the story of a dead addict the narrator knew from buying coke and Dilaudid) is a real gem--haunting, no false notes, hard and clear as glass. Notably, it's told in the first person, so the narrator has nowhere to hide from his own problems.
I notice in Puebla, maybe all over Mexico, there's a pervasive fake-o-rama realist aesthetic. For instance, the dead Jesus in the great Cathedral has gaping wounds and bright red blood, while the horror and serenity on his face is rendered in broad, cartoonish strokes. He's also got a hairpiece that would shame Milton Berle. This is not kitsch; Jesus displays no irony nor lack of refinement. Big ideas are embedded in him, and they seem to require big, clear gestures. It's like when Steve Earle (in "I Feel Alright") grunts "huhn" after reminding the listener that "some of you would live through me, lock me up, and throw away the key." A cocaine dealer's taunt, this largely emblematic grunt is one of pop music's greatest moments. By "emblematic," I mean this grunt sounds nothing like a grunt one would hear in life, but rather signals to us the enormous pride and disdain that lies behind the urge toward such a grunt, a pride and disdain so overreaching that no real grunt could ever contain it.
Such gestures are impossible within the style of prose Earle has chosen for his fiction. His stories are natural seeming and familiar, like those of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolfe, or Paul Russel. They are mimetic, aping remembered experiences sufficiently well to "ring true," rendering voices artfully enough to make written dialogue read like real speech. Pop songs, on the other hand, thrive on the cartoon gesture, the well put cliché delivered with true feeling. No one really talks the way they do. Say the words to a beloved pop song out loud; they are embarrassing, simple, unreal. I cry when Milo Ackerman of The Descendents sings "Sitting there with your mouth full of beer, your eyes are glazed, your face is red. Who's going to pick you up and use you for tonight? Not me. Not me. Not me. Not me. Not me." Or Steve Earle: "I'll be going over yonder, where no ghost can follow me."
Pop songs are an exacting form composed of simple predictable parts more like a villanelle or haiku than like the mimetic illusion of most contemporary fiction. As with the classical haiku of, say, Basho, pop songs limit themselves to a handful of traditional subjects and deploy familiar, almost canonical imagery within a strictly limited structure whose power derives from fidelity to the form. Why is "Road Runner" so powerful? Because it is "Sister Ray." Yesterday in Puebla, looking at Jesus amidst swarms of Catholic children genuflecting to the completely lifeless, unrealistic doll with the same vivid excitement and understanding provoked by their favorite Mexican wrestlers (another surpassing example of fake-o-rama realism) I knew that pop cannot function as a reproduction of remembered realities, but only as an arrangement of simple emblems of greater things, symbols that remind the listener to feel something that is too enormous for mimicry, too unreproducible to ever be rendered mimetically in art. A guitar's burst of sound is transcendence; a scream is sexual ecstasy; a tonal resolution is resignation and giving up.
Written prose of the sort practiced by Steve Earle (or, say, John Updike or Raymond Carver) proposes the opposite: the work of art claims a kind of equivalence with past experience; it wants to coexist with memory, not just function as a portal into realities too great to be art. It is remarkable that Earle--a genius of the pop song form--should have the considerable talent he has in the mimetic form of short prose. His stories court the same successes and failures one is used to enduring in most contemporary fiction. A character in one story excites us because he sounds so like someone we once met; another disappoints because her voice echoes movies, rather than any person we've overheard. A conversation in a Hanoi hotel room quickens our interest by recalling and naming exotic things succinctly and authoritatively. These are not minor accomplishments. Prose of this sort is difficult, and, if publishers or readers are to be believed, success in this form is the pinnacle achievement of prose writing today.
But the power of pop songs begs me to ask 'what is the point?' Who needs mimetic art? Why can't written prose generate the delirium and transcendence of pop? Everything in Puebla is made of sugar and the television is constantly on. Only the rich eat very little. The poor are gluttons. I've never seen such clean children. Mimetic art is an aberration, a brief glitch between the baroque and pop. In the church of Santa Maria, in Tonantzintla, gilded Aztec cherubs cluster among absurdly bright purple and red poppies surrounding a pale Jesus whose wounds are made of ripped, painted cloth and whose hair is thick and real. The cherubs are chocolate brown, frowning, puzzled--drowning in the gold ornament that covers the walls and arched ceiling. They were carved in wood 450 years ago by enslaved Indios, descendants of the Aztec they resemble, and their flattened faces, their broad empty eyes--imprisoned on these church walls, imprisoned as emblem, as art that cannot die--say more than any realistic account of Spanish conquest ever could.
Which is not to say I don't thoroughly admire Steve Earle's book. He is a deliberate, talented prose writer. His stories burned images into my mind: driving through the desert at night, "leaving the lights off, he set the car in motion down the black asphalt, deeper into the desert, further out of control;" the compulsive pleasures of the addict "conditioned like some space-race laboratory monkey to keep pushing that button, too far gone to give a fuck whether I received a banana-flavored pellet or a 110-volt shock." His pacing is tight, cinematic, collapsing vast stretches of time through unhesitating jump-cuts. He has an ear for American voices, though a sometimes-wooden touch with foreign sounds. And he takes risks, experimenting with subject matter and structures that lie outside the safe realm of what he has known well in life. But here in Puebla, these virtues are lost amidst the din of the radio's crazy baroque hectoring, its broadcast of the awesome sounds of pop music.