Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt: A Review
So the one thing I want to clear up first thing, because it comes up almost every time I recommend it, is that Ablutions is not Patrick deWitt’s new novel. We’re still waiting for that! It’s his first novel, published by Anansi (2009), labelled “brilliant,” “intense,” and “remarkable.” I’d never heard of it either until after The Sisters Brothers, but I bought it because of the description (“a dark, boozy, grimly funny tale of the sodden depth of the Los Angeles underworld”) and because Anansi published it. They’ve never let me down, not once. I also bought it without having yet read the major award-winning SB. In fact, I still haven’t yet read The Sisters Brothers, though I’ve sampled the writing more than once.
Ablutions, though—oh, I’ve more than simply read this book. I swear to you, reading it is living it. I had to look up from its pages now and then to re-situate myself because it felt so real, because I was so emotionally invested. And I don’t think that had much to do with the fact that it’s a second-person narrative (which has never worked for me until this book). It’s the way deWitt paints the scenes, the bar, the night, the haze of pills and gut rot of too much Jameson Irish whiskey, the interior of a magical 1971 Ford LTD (you never once get caught driving drunk). It’s also his writing style, clean and direct, no superfluous punctuation and adverbs. There are witty and unexpected similes (“the pills congregate in your fingertips like lazy students in an empty hall”). The cadence, much like poetry, is hypnotic and emphasizes with its perfect pitch and language both beauty and darkness.
While Ablutions is a significant title, the subtitle—Notes for a Novel—is equally important, and is also, together with the style and narration, what makes deWitt’s novel original even though the idea of a person who hits rock bottom and seeks redemption is not. This is, after all, an almost quintessential human experience, yes?
But deWitt finds a rather ingenious way to tell the story. A bartender (“You”) in a once famous now seedy Hollywood bar is fascinated by his quirky patrons, and in observing them and their behaviour makes notes for a novel he hopes to write (new sections often begin with “Discuss…”). But as deWitt’s readers are apt to fall under the spell of his writing, so too does the barman begin to find himself sucked into the grimy underbelly of Hollywood barlife as he befriends some of the regulars (his characters for his novel). His curiosity but also his own vulnerabilities cause him to fit in too well. Soon, he’s swallowing pills like candy and drinking more whiskey than he serves his troubled customers. He’s vomiting silently in the toilet at home to mask his drinking and hangovers. When his wife leaves him, he descends further, spiralling into a liver-aching stupor and going on a casual sex bender. And at his lowest point, when all seems lost, he realizes he is trapped—by his job, his lifestyle, the desperate and needy oddities he spends too much time with—and will not survive if he does not break the spell of the underworld and his cycle of self-destruction.
Whiskey or no whiskey you are drunk and angry at yourself and you wonder why you are unable to help yourself and your mood is desperate and no pills will change this and so you take no more and you do not stop for single cans of Budweiser and by the time you pull over to sleep you are sick and in pain.
Crafting a rather dangerous but lucrative plan to escape, the barman thus brings the book’s title into play: he vows to go on a trip, away from the sinkhole of a bar where he works, the draining patrons, the stink of his life, and to abstain from substance abuse all the while. He means to perform ablutions, to cleanse himself and thus be free.
In fact this was its [the trip's] grand if overly dramatic purpose: To travel and see the world without any alcohol and to think of what was broken in your life and wonder clearheaded about the mending of these broken things.
This is, of course, easier resolved than done.
This is the story, then, of a man who struggles with not only the “impossible assistance” the bar patrons need and the depressing truth of their lives but also the realization that he is the same as they are and must somehow make the choice to change. His observations of characters tell us this (he sees through them), and deWitt’s use of the second person “You” reflects to us, the readers, the message that change is necessary. In turn, a story within a story, our barman, who is “You,” passes on this message when he writes to another barman (also “You”) on a napkin:
You are forty years old, a bartender in a bar in the desert. You hate the customers and the work but are trapped in the life as you have no other skills and have had no schooling or training of any kind. You have wasted your life drinking and doing drugs and sleeping beside women with hay for brains. You are alone and of no use to the world, save for this job, the job you hate, the job of getting people drunk. What will you be doing in five years? In ten years? There is no one who will look after you and you could die tomorrow and the only people who would care would be your bosses, and they would not be sad at your passing but only annoyed about having to interview new staff.
Your hair looks impossibly stupid.
The character sketches in this book are so vivid and true you’d swear deWitt sat at bars and simply wrote about the people he saw, but with uncanny compassion for even the strangest or most annoying among them. Each is like a Seinfeld character, all a bit off in some way: the guy who has a law-enforcement fetish, the cougar who wants to become your bosom buddy and seal the deal with a spit-enhanced handshake, the woman whose “pores emit a smell of chili dogs and french fries dipped in mayonnaise,” Junior the crack addict, Merlin, the geriatric fortune-teller. DeWitt’s descriptions of the regulars are like nothing you’ve seen since Dickens: they are rich and fantastic and funny and sad.
Discuss Merlin. He is seventy years old, with close-cropped white hair, a long white beard, and desperate, deep-set grey eyes. He chain-smokes brown More cigarettes; they tremble in his spotted, hairy hands or hang from the corner of his lipless mouth and he speaks from behind a screen of smoke, his fingers interlocking like puzzle pieces, a visual aid to some astrological peculiarity or possibly a dirty joke. His teeth are jagged, yellow, and rodent-like, and when he laughs his neck is all veins and tendons and you force yourself to look for no reason other than it is a difficult thing to do.
His vocation is mired in the pall of alcoholic fiction but he claims to be involved alternatively in movie-making, real estate, stock speculation, and something called life coaching, which as far as you can tell is an ugly cousin to psychology requiring considerably less schooling. … Despite his many professions, he is usually broke and twice has asked you for small loans to tide him over until the banks open. “No,” you said flatly, and he bared his teeth and retreated like a crab into the shadows of the cold, smoke-filled room.
He is a man in crisis. He favors futuristic, multibuckling sandals and brightly colored nylon jumpsuits, but he is known to wear for business purposes a voluminous double-breasted sharkskin suit and tasseled wingtips. These meetings invariably go poorly and Merlin complains of his clients and investors, christening them chickenhearts and babyhearts and yellowbacks. On such nights as these he grinds his fangs and slaps at the bar, cursing the cruel machine called Hollywood with mounting venom until complaints are made and Simon is forced to intervene … [Merlin] is envious of Simon’s good looks and accent and he spreads a rumor that Simon was not born in cosmopolitan Johannesburg but the squalor of a desert scrubland, surrounded by “yipping pygmies and hippo shit.” Merlin was born in Cincinnati but affects an English accent while drinking.
(Forgive the amount of quoting. I can’t help it. My copy has more sticky notes jutting out of it than pages.)
At a mere 164 pages, Ablutions is heavily, imaginatively populated with the regulars at this Hollywood bar, but this isn’t simply a litany of character sketches. It’s through these people and the narrator’s observations of them—at first they are rather like circus freaks until the barman realizes his life mirrors their own—that we understand the plight of human inadequacy. These characters are strange because they’re longing, they’re making up for not measuring up, they’re dreamers, liars, desperate, lonely, mad. They are grown men and women, sad and pathetic, and we see this not only through our own compassion but that of the bartender.
Ablutions is purposefully raw. It is visceral. It is bad teeth, bad sex, gut rot you can smell, and apricot-coloured bile. It’s bloody and druggy and saturated with booze. At times it made me nauseated. Yet it is also funny and I often caught myself laughing aloud at the casually stated humour. I call this novel pure genius—for its structure, its characterization, its style, its message—which never comes across as preachy, by the way. I loved it. Aside from the writing itself, there was enough search for truth, enough realizations of truth in it to make me want to keep reading.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a bar or tasted Jameson’s or had shitty cheap sex or popped four or five pills to numb the pain; even if your spouse has never left you and you don’t have hepatitis and you have never met or loaned money to a crack addict; even if you’ve never done a thing You did, you’ll get this. You’ve thought crazy things you’d never admit aloud. You’ve done things you’d rather not say. You’ve been stuck before. You’ve proclaimed resolutions, performed ablutions. In a big way, You as a narrator works: You is Everyman. You’ll see in the end.