Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
Add Patrick deWitt's debut novel to the drinker's canon of reads that separates the dark, dank bar regulars from the tourists. Regulars will uncomfortably recognize deWitt's descriptions of spending entirely too much time and money imbibing entirely too much cheap, potent liquor. Regulars will recognize how last call rounds up a motley group that tumbles to somebody's apartment/house for continued drinking and/or snorting and/or smoking sessions that stare down dawn. Regulars will recognize the bad judgment calls that lead to leaving with the wrong younger--or much older--woman.
Tourists will merely see such unseemly behavior as the self-loathing that it is.
Which isn't to say the book--and, for that matter, the dive-bar lifestyle--isn't frequently funny and entertaining, as every good barstool raconteur knows. And deWitt, in his first outing, captures that milieu with an attentive eye for its grubby details, colorful dialog, and, especially, its characters, in all their tragic, hilarious, overconfident, outlandish, absurd, and just plain sad humanity. DeWitt pulls it off in a calm voice that encourages following along while everything stays safely distant, as the entire book is written in the second person, keeping all these tales--about the former child actor, the woman who may be a transsexual, the homeless addict, the unhappy doorman, the coke dealer who always brings his son along--at arm's length. It's a storytelling device that heeds to the "notes for a novel" subheading, and it allows deWitt to document excoriating details without shoving shoddy down the throat.
It also allows for a casual indifference, making the central narrator--a young bartender, who has a wife and home when the novel opens--move and feel like a disinterested spectator of his own life: "You mop up the vomit and head to the bar to wash the stacks of glasses, hoping to numb your active mind in this mindless work but find that you cannot." It's a clever way to avoid the pitfalls of those poetic boozers (see: Charles Bukowski) who sometimes make drunken poverty sound like the romantic last bastion of the defiantly honest.
The technique, though, wisely doesn't smooth over this downward-spiraling life's outright desperation, rampant misogyny--such as the post-coital thought "You think you can hear her crying but you do not want to look over or ask her any questions or try in any way to comfort her and if she got up and ran out the door you would not stop her" --or haphazard cruelty. And it's what turns this brisk 104 pages into a fairly conventional reminder that the dive bar is a lively place to visit but a horrible way to live.