[This funny, grueling addiction story is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Patrick deWitt

2009, Mariner

Filed under: Literary

After reading Patrick deWitt’s excellent new Western, The Sisters Brothers, I went straight out and found his only other book, Ablutions. It did not disappoint.

Ablutions follows a nameless Hollywood bartender, a degenerate drunk on a steep downward trajectory. He spends his nights drinking free Jameson and warring with regulars at the bar he works at and hates; he spends his days suffering atrocious hangovers and fighting with his wife. Generally, he mislives his life.

I don’t entirely know how deWitt sold this debut novel, because that thumbnail description doesn’t begin to do justice to this funny, lovely, tragic, gripping book.

One of the strengths of the novel is deWitt’s ability to finely craft complex characters who stretch the boundaries of the genres and subgenres he works in. Addiction stories typically embody a survivalist’s morality. Most imply a happy ending that necessarily stems from a rejection of vice, and a rejection of the addict’s life.

Ablutions offers no such morality, not even a sliver. The nameless bartender guzzles an elephant’s serving of whiskey every single night, despite the fact that he has hepatitis, despite his doctor’s doomsaying, despite the fact that at a young age he sometimes feels acute liver pains. He drives home drunk every night, calling his car “magical” because he never gets arrested. He eats far too many aspirin to ward off severe morning headaches, though he knows that mixing aspirin and booze multiply the harm done to his helpless liver.

All this is told in a carefree, amoral tone, but the most cutting detail is the book’s subtitle: “Notes for a Novel.” Sure enough, Ablutions takes the form of a set of notes, directed from the bartender to himself, instructions for some future, never-finished project. In other words, there will be no redemption, and no salvation. There will be no novel, because there will be no end to the bartender’s debauchery. There will be only these unfinished notes.

The notes form short vignettes that sometimes tell a story about one of the awful regulars, sometimes outline a character, and sometimes only cover a painful square inch of the bartender’s miserable life. Somehow, deWitt manages to tell this agonizing story of failure and decrepitude with more than his fair share of humor.

For instance, here’s a passage wherein the bartender (speaking to himself, as always) begins a paragraph by discussing his method for avoiding his wife’s criticism when he’s hungover, and then takes a turn that reveals a damaged, blackened soul:

You are a trained silent vomiter. You do not sigh, you do not moan, you do not breathe heavily, you vomit on the porcelain of the toilet rather than in the toilet water, and as far as your wife knows you have never once vomited in all your time together. This skill was not developed overnight and you are annoyed that you will never be able to share it with others, and you wonder if you wouldn’t benefit from having a best friend. But wouldn’t he then want to share his talents with you? And is this perhaps all that best friends do? You are not interested in the talents of others and you decide you must be cautious about whom you let into your life.

In a single paragraph, deWitt’s hopeless narrator swerves from pride in his skill at deception to a bent kind of loneliness, to a guarded suspicion of a hypothetical relationship that he has just made up. Along the way, he manages to be cynically, misanthropically hilarious.

This is the way Ablutions goes. The bartender embarks on or witnesses outrageously cruel and foolish adventures, and finds innovative ways to hate his fellow man. At the same time, he has a soft spot for the world, as long as it doesn’t come near enough to rub elbows. He hates all the regulars, but loves strangers he hasn’t met, and feels for their plights. Such as:

Discuss the apartment building across the street from the bar. It sits above a massage parlor and twice you see people drop from a high window to the sidewalk. You do not cross the street to view the results but your heart is hurt and confused by the sight of the falling bodies.

As with The Sisters Brothers, Ablutions gets its core strength from deWitt’s ability to create characters who are both horrible and likeable, and whose self-destructive tendencies fascinate.

If I had to struggle for a criticism, it’s that these first two novels are too similar, both in subject matter and in writing style. Eventually, this might get old. But, I’ve read both inside a month and I’d attack a third if it existed.

So read Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers and watch for deWitt’s next book. He’s a rare talent.

Similar books: Leaving Las Vegas, by John O’Brien; The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. Also, definitely check out Patrick deWitt’s latest novel, The Sisters Brothers, another Great Read.