Book Beat August 08 2001 (3)

Fans of roots rocker Steve Earle will recognize many familiar themes in his first collection of short stories — drug addiction, the nightmare of Vietnam, the price of failure (or success) in the music industry. Perhaps it’s too familiar.

More so than in his music, Earle seems to go for easy targets in Doghouse Roses, and easy targets don’t often make for much of a book. On the flipside, however, they do provide for a couple of the better stories: “Billy the Kid,” in which he traces the meteoric rise of Nashville’s last authentic country-music prodigy, whose early fame was abruptly terminated by a car accident (sound familiar?), and “Doghouse Roses,” in which character Bobby Charles’ career plummets as fast as Shania Twain’s neckline as he grapples with heroin, speedballs and crack pipes. Charles, like Earle, manages to get sober and retain some semblance of a career.

Earle misses the mark in “Taneytown,” a first-person narrative told through the eyes (and mouth) of a mentally retarded black child named after the song of the same name by Earle. In the song, the story is stripped to its bare, wires a-spark emotional core, telling of small-town life and big-city beaus, all tied together with a Civil War duality. Here, it’s just a stumbling tale that loses strength through some (unintentional) Stepin Fetchit dialogue.

Earle’s famous opposition to the death penalty also is in evidence. “The Witness” is actually one of the better stories, although it, like the death penalty, is marred by a predictable end.

Earle made a name for himself in the music world in a number of ways — by being completely uncompromising in the creation of his work, by infusing his characters with himself and by infusing himself with his characters. In Doghouse Roses, he seems to take the road most traveled, and while his writing is of a decent quality, the stories never offer any detours or surprises. One gets the feeling that if this book had been shopped around under the name of, say, Steven Early, it would have never made it past the front door.??