Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
By Patrick deWitt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 176 pages
What happens when you drop a canny and sensitive individual into the gloomiest job possible, and more importantly, how does he survive? Patrick deWitt’s debut novel Ablutions is the chronicle of such a person, an unnamed thirty-two year old protagonist slugging away as a barback in a fading Hollywood establishment. The book is written in the second person and organized into short entries designated as "Notes for a Novel"; a curious technique that occasionally comes across like a graphic novel translated into words, with each section depicting what a panel might. As experimental novels go, deWitt’s experiment works.
“Grim” and “grimy” are the leading adjectives to attach to our protagonist’s place of employment. The bar serves crack addicts, transvestites, musclemen gone dotty on steroids, former child stars, and nuts of all kinds. There are people marred by acne, pockmarks, secretions and filthy imaginations, as well as customers of indeterminate gender who are eager to provide the narrator with blowjobs. There are patrons who believe that "everyone should be buried alive at least once in his life." At least.
That’s the backdrop. Plot-wise, characters are introduced one by one in compact, scintillating descriptions. They come and go from the bar, as alcoholics do, assembling in different combinations and revealing every possible kind of weakness, vanity and desperation. There is also virtue, infrequently, and humor, more frequently, as with the doorman Antony who "takes a shine to you because you are so skinny and white. He is Puerto Rican and wonders at your drunken life. He asks if you eat only one Cheeto per day and you tell him that sometimes if you are famished you will eat two."
Ablutions is not, as they say, a plot-driven book. At one point the narrator's wife leaves him; at another he rents a truck and drives to the Grand Canyon, where he fights with a horse and falls in love with a pretty bartender. Recovery begins when he decides to swap a passive sin for an active one, turning his back on whiskey and choosing instead to nip from the cash register. Ever the stealthy observer, it is no surprise that he is a crafty and successful thief.
Dirtball Hollywood is old territory but deWitt makes it new, in part by avoiding all the obvious influences. Ablutions contends with matters of ennui, booze and masculinity but avoids Bukowski territory; it is thoroughly nightmarish and thoroughly Los Angeles without evoking David Lynch. DeWitt's prose is highbrow, reflective and fixated on minutiae. He aestheticizes. There are vile scenes (a gangbang stands out), but not a single poor sentence. This makes the experience of reading Ablutions a fraught one, alternately nauseating and absorbing. It is a novel that makes you grateful you cannot smell the scenes described inside. Like all novelists who write successfully about Los Angeles, deWitt is susceptible to the city’s peculiar horrors. We are lucky he is willing to transcribe them.