"The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait" by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper, 512 pages, $27.99)
Daniel Mark Epstein was lucky enough to catch Dylan — and Dylan fever — early on, taking in a 1963 show, at the start of the singer's meteoric rise.
His description of the show is testament to a 15-year-old's memory, packed with minutia — from each song's time signature to the position of Dylan's guitar capo. The reader quickly begins to fear the book is for only the most die-hard fanatics.
But in subsequent chapters, the story picks up speed and as Epstein checks back on Dylan at subsequent concerts during various stages of the artist's career, his focus, thankfully, widens.
Epstein disputes the perception that Dylan rarely gives interviews, citing and quoting from a number of them as well as from Dylan's 2005 autobiographical book, "Chronicles," but he never interviews the man himself. This leaves him to rely on interviews with former band members, friends, acquaintances and secondhand sources.
Epstein acknowledges that there is already an absurdly vast library devoted to Dylan, and it's not always clear what he has to add, aside from an overview of the most recent literature and his obvious love for his subject.
"The Ballad of Bob Dylan" works best as an introduction to one of the 20th century's most famous musician-poets or as something for hardcore fans to pick over, but it may fall short for those in between.
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"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" by Steve Earle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $26)
Brilliant songwriting doesn't necessarily translate to successful fiction writing. That's the case with country troubadour Steve Earle's debut novel, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
The novel takes place in 1963, 10 years after country singer Hank Williams was discovered dead in the back seat of his car at the age of 29. Earle spins a tale of a junkie doctor who lives with Williams' ghost.
"Doc," who had treated Williams, now lives in San Antonio's red-light district with drug dealers, prostitutes and illegal immigrants — a colorful, but flatly drawn group of hardscrabble characters.
"Doc" supports his morphine habit by providing medical services to those too afraid or too poor to seek help elsewhere.
With more than a dozen albums to his name, there's no question Earle can tell a great story. But he cannot seem to sustain it throughout this short volume of fiction.
All good teachers advise their students to write about what they know — and Earle has taken this lesson to heart. His descriptions of addiction and withdrawal feel both haunting and heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, by the time the wayward Irish priest and the stigmata appear, the book has become downright silly.
Earle's fans are likely to be more impressed by his new album of the same name.