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This review is from: Ablutions (Kindle Edition)
I used to really love boozy, druggy novels when I was a teenager, regularly devouring books by Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jnr. and Patrick Hamilton where the protagonists were either alcoholics, drug addicts or both. But that was when I was a teenager and my literary tastes have since changed. So I was surprised to find myself drawn into Patrick deWitt's debut novel "Ablutions" which takes place almost entirely in a dismal Hollywood bar filled with deadbeats and human detritus getting sloshed and snorting powder in the dark.
Like most people I came to deWitt after reading his excellent Booker-nominated western "The Sisters Brothers" about a pair of bounty hunters in the old West on the trail of one of their targets. It's an excellent book which I highly recommend and led me to seek out this, his only other published novel (so far). "Ablutions" is a completely different book to "The Sisters Brothers"; where "Sisters" was a fast-paced first person narrative that read like an intelligent thriller, "Ablutions" is without a plot, told in the second person by a consistently drunk narrator, his attention reeling from one character in the bar to another seemingly at random and without any direction.
And yet "Ablutions" is still a hypnotic read. Maybe it's the character portraits of the broken lives that litter the bar. There is a drug- addled manager, an alcoholic former child actor, two slutty drunken school teachers, a wannabe artist and a dealer, as well as corrupt bar owners and the despicable narrator. The setup is that the narrator wants to be a novelist who gets work as a bar back because he feels he will meet a number of interesting people with stories he can exploit by putting them in his novel. Combine this with the fact that the author used to work as a dishwasher/bar back and the uneven, scattered approach to writing this novel and you could almost say that the author is the narrator and that his cynical approach worked. Almost. Because the writing is too damn good to dismiss the book as opportunistic and exploitative.
The comparisons to Bukowski are only superficial. Yes it takes place in a bar, a setting which Bukowski featured prominently in many of his novels, but his writing style was far more straightforward and raw, focusing more on dialogue than prose. DeWitt includes dialogue but, as the subtitle "Notes for a Novel" suggests, much of the book is written descriptively and the style feels more lyrical. The atmosphere of the bar culture feels very real and the details are convincingly authentic. DeWitt captures life on skid row as ramshackle, scary, deeply unpleasant and ugly while portraying the mind-set of an alcoholic with mesmerising alacrity. We get to see his inner workings, believing his car is "magic" because he drives home drunk each night and never gets pulled over by police, and while at home, he hides stashes of aspirin so his wife doesn't realise his increasing dependence on, and abuse of, substances.
He does utilise novelistic tropes that set the book apart from being a simple retelling of scenes from a bar: it's "written" by an alcoholic narrator whose life is falling apart so the lack of cohesion in the broken layout could reflect the narrator's scattered and unsettled mind. Also, the business model of the bar is bizarre: the staff (seemingly all alcoholics) can drink as much of anything in the bar for free while doling out free drinks to regular alcoholics who show up every night? And why is there a doorman for an establishment so low-class whose clientele are practically all homeless derelicts? How does this place make money when it's in the hands of such reckless, irresponsible personalities? Unless a lot of this is made up and/or misremembered by an increasingly unreliable narrator who storyline becomes more unhinged as the book reaches its conclusion.
If you're going to read this - and I do recommend it - beware that it is a slow burn. It doesn't take a while to get going because it never really does, it trundles along at an unhurried pace throughout, occasionally giving the reader something more substantial than bar scenes. The solitary road trip to the Grand Canyon was brilliant with the scenes at the rodeo being the best in the novel. But it's slow pacing and detailed telling of the lives of these troubled and troubling people is fantastic and the portrait of the narrator is fascinating. "Ablutions" is a good novel and well worth the time you give it, just don't expect the kind of novel he delivered in "The Sisters Brothers". Cheers!