Ablutions is my third time reading Patrick deWitt and he does not disappoint. I adored The Sisters Brothers and highly enjoyed French Exit, so was interested to see how his debut novel would measure up.
Ablutions is told in the second person from the point of view of an unnamed young barman in LA whose work and personal life start to unravel as he slides towards substance abuse and divorce. Subtitled Notes for a Novel, Ablutions is a series of sketches or vignettes depicting the habits of his colleagues and his regular clientele in the run-down bar on the outskirts of the city.
His manager is a coke-addled ex-model who helps serve a serious of crazed and crazy characters. They are a colourful bunch, who feature a washed up child star who mutters lines from his past movies; a 70-year-old psychic who predicts the murder of one of the barmen; a transvestite who doesn’t speak until dumped by her boyfriend and Curtis, who has a never-ending bar tab and sleeps in the closet of an apartment from which he has previously been evicted.
They fight, they have sex in the storeroom and staff and customers alike drink from morning to night. Soon our narrator is drinking as much as he is serving and his taste for Jameson and aspirin intensify his self-loathing.
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.
Structurally, the novel is incredibly well paced. The tales from the frontline of a seedy establishment start out entertaining and insightful. DeWitt has years of bartending experience himself, and it shows in his eye for detail and ability to capture the humour and the pain in the experience of being a regular drinker. In the second half of the book, as our bartender starts to lose control of his own life, he takes an ill-advised trip East to visit the Grand Canyon and finds that the world outside the four walls of his bar is frightening and uncontrollable.
You were not prepared to feel anything other than pedestrian amusement, and it weakens you in your spine and legs. Clutching your stomach through your shirt, you say to yourself, there is too much of the earth missing here, and I just don’t want to know about it.
Ablutions depicts alcoholism and drug-dependency in all its bone-crushing tedium – the hangovers as convincingly awful as the highs were enjoyable. However, it does not glorify addiction in anyway. In fact, what is most striking about the novel is the lack of any context, or any moral. The second-person narrative voice is distancing and the lack of back-story or resolution means that the novel is a convincing portrait of the never-ending feedback loop of addiction.
Entertaining and thought provoking, Ablutions may not reach the heights of deWitt’s later work, but it is a thoroughly interesting novel, that is as funny as it is bleak.
What I enjoy about Patrick deWitt’s work is that I never know what to expect, both in terms of style and content – he is a writer who surprises and I look forward now to reading Undermajordomo Minor and seeing what treats are in store!
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!