Review: Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt

Ablutions>>Published: January 2009

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

Heading down the hall a man asks if you are working and you point to the mop and bug your eyes at the question and he hands you a cellular phone he has found. This gives you an idea and you do not clean up the vomit but lock yourself into the storage room and call 911 to report your suspicion that there is a bomb set to explode on the premises of the bar. You give a detailed account of an overheard conversation between two swarthy, bearded men and before you are even off the phone you can hear the shrieks of the customers and the breaking of glasses as firemen rush through the bar to clear the room. You reach up for a bottle of Jameson and break the seal, taking a long drink and inhaling deeply from a cigarette. When the evacuation is completed you let yourself out of the storage room and the bar is empty, and you walk from one side to the other drinking the whiskey and smoking, and crying softly—you cannot tell if the reason is relief or sadness. You look for Curtis’s body but it has been moved. On the bar where Raymond was sitting you find a half-crumpled drawing of an adolescent boy, shirtless and in cutoffs, with a penis like a lasso. He is whipping it over his head and looks very happy to be living. You stuff this into your pocket and walk to the men’s room where you find the child actor in a ball beneath the sink. There is drool draining from the corner of his mouth and his eyes are open to slits but you cannot see his pupils, and the reddened whites, and his breath is indefinable and you stand and kick him hard in the stomach and he vomits a cupful of gin and bile. Wiping the tears from your face you set your whiskey bottle and cigarette on the sink countertop and stand back against the far bathroom wall and rush forward to kick him in the center of his moaning face.

***

A nameless barman in a Hollywood bar populated by only the lowest of the low, sinking ever deeper into a whiskey-soaked state of self-satisfied annihilation via inebriation. Such is the scene Patrick deWitt invites readers into for his first novel, Ablutions.

Originally subtitled Notes for a Novel, Ablutions is a narrative in the seldom-used second person perspective: “you” do this, “you” do that—no I, no he, she, it, or they. I’ve often found this perspective troublesome, except when used in epistolary tales, but deWitt employs it to great effect. The Jameson Irish whiskey-loving, money-skimming protagonist—an anti-hero for the modern day, if ever one existed—is a fascinating, despicable split between total narcissism and self-hatred. Through the second person point of view, he stands just outside of himself at all times, looking down upon himself and being disgusted by what he sees, but somehow being arrogant about it—as if the gradual obliteration of his life and connections to all he at once held dear (his wife, his friends, what little he could call a career) is a point of pride, of strength. He can at once criticize himself without completely hating himself.

This arrogance is bolstered by the seemingly grand amounts of pleasure he takes in destroying the lives of others, be it financially (stealing stacks of cash from the bar), physically (abusing patrons, as in the segment above), or ethically (selling Simon and his out-of-control cocaine addition out to the bar owner’s widow, redirecting her suspicions that the narrator has in fact been the one stealing their money… which, of course, he was). As great a force of self-destruction as the narrator is, he’s even more in love with how clever he is, and how easily he is able to manipulate those around him just long enough to make his escape from the bar, and ostensibly from California.

Whether or not he escapes is irrelevant in the end, because he’s learned no lessons, experienced no true moral conundrums. The manner in which he’s distanced himself from who he is and how he operates implies a total lack of evolution; the scenery might change, but the cad remains the same. This is further exemplified by the use of the word “Discuss” at the opening to so many paragraphs. He’s a documentarian of sorts, noting behaviours and idiosyncrasies of others for, one suspects, the great work of literature he will one day piece together, if and when he manages to crawl himself out of his whiskey obsession long enough to ever put pen to page. However, his approach serves only to distance himself further—not just from who he is, but form everyone around him and why their lives matter, if not to him then to someone.

In this unnamed alcoholic wannabe writer, deWitt has crafted a compelling yet totally deplorable protagonist—one you simultaneously want to succeed and get his shit together, and one you hope fails, completely and utterly, getting his just desserts from one of the many co-workers or bar regulars he’s taken such pleasure in placing beneath his heels. With vivid, florid language, deWitt has painted both a shithead and a shithole none should ever hope to emulate, but nonetheless will be glad to have experienced.

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