This past week I finished reading Ablutions, the first novel by Patrick DeWitt — published in 2009 — who is better known now for his award-winning novel The Sisters Brothers. Structurally, the novel is a collection of notes, anecdotes, and recollections of the nameless protagonist’s experience working as a bartender in a seedy Hollywood bar. The story explores many of the bar’s vagrant, down-and-out regulars and employees, as well as the protagonist’s own spiralling life centred on an excess of Irish whiskey and popping pills.
The subtitle of the book is Notes for a Novel, and the way the entire text is written reflects this. It is not a plot heavy story, but rather focuses on particular points of interest that the narrator wants to focus on. The book opens with the line “Discuss the regulars,” and for a good portion of the novel he does just that. He highlights specific characters and their quirks, most of whom play recurring roles as the novel progresses. The story feels very dreamlike as the reader drifts through the narrator’s memories, rarely focusing on any particular occurrence in real time for more than a few passages before progressing through the grand scheme of the experience.
A particularly striking aspect of the novel is that it is written entirely in the second-person — the narrator consistently refers to the protagonist as “you,” since these are presumably notes he has written for himself. While this is an uncommon and more challenging perspective to write a story from, DeWitt wrote it in such a compelling way that for a good few pages I didn’t consciously realize the second-person perspective. This allowed for a good level of immersion with the nameless protagonist’s experiences, as well as a number of instances where the reader is played around with by the narrative.
There is one moment in particular the affected me so well that I had to share my experience with someone nearby. Without giving too much away, one of the regulars was telling a story that from the onset I was concerned would take a dark turn. After a point of completion, the narrator says “you breathe a great sigh of relief, because for a moment you were afraid this would be a blank story,” I had to put the book down and laugh to myself, realizing it had manipulated me into suspecting something, only to call me out on it afterwards.
Dealing with a lot of drifters and losers that make up the bar’s clientele, as well as the protagonist’s own crippling alcoholism, this is another novel that is very far from anything feel-good. It is, however, very darkly humorous in its recollection of events. Everyone is in their own personal states of misery, but this doesn’t stop them from introducing a little levity into their lives.
From deeply embellished stories of sexual conquest and obsession with cop uniforms, to manic fortune-telling and magical Ford vehicles, everyone has their personal quirks that add a lot of character. The story is still very dismal, but it helps it from becoming outright depressing. It feels very natural in this way, as humour is one of the more crucial defense mechanisms human beings have to manage misery on a daily basis, which is very apparent in how a lot of these characters seem to cling to these quirks for dear life.
I would recommend Ablutions for the unconventional perspective alone, as it is rarely seen done so effectively. Aside from that, it is a darkly funny story dealing with the nocturnal underbelly of Hollywood bars that deals very naturally with common human struggles with excess, misery, and the unending desire many of us have for something more from life.