I picked up this book at the Borders closing sale for one reason only: I liked the cover. Despite what people say about book covers, I find them often a good indicator of the book within, and this cover in particular made me think of art, and strange stories told at early hours of the morning, and alcohol. All of which are covered in great depth in this book.
Now, I’m not one for literary gimmicks, for the emphasis on style over plot. But I have to say Patrick deWitt’s debut is one of the few that — despite its odd format and tone — managed to capture my attention and keep me reading all the way down the dark, twisted rabbit hole.
Of the little storyline that there is, the main facts are thus: the main character is a barman in Hollywood, observing the lowlifes that are his regular customers — addicts, failed actors, artists, drug deales, etc — without seeming to realize that the darkness of their lives has encroached his, and he is on the slippery slope to utter desperation. There is no airbrushing, no sweetening of the facts: this is a disturbing, seedy tale, with a dark humour not for the faint-hearted. There are some pretty explicit, disgusting, and disturbing scenes. There are also a couple sadly funny ones.
It’s one of those how-low-can-you-go stories. Think Fear and Loathing or Requiem for a Dream or anything along those lines. I have to say, though, that the style manages to inject a certain freshness to what is an overused scenario. Again, in this case, form trumps contents.
It may sound a little odd, but the plot is perhaps the weakest part of this novel, if you can even call it that. The subtitle is, after all, “notes for a novel”, an apt description for a book that reads like a collection of roughly organized yet powerfully observational pieces.
So what is it about the style that makes this book stand out? Well, I mentioned that the subtitle is “notes for a novel” — this is no ordinary piece of fiction. The book is told in a series of notes about the characters and situations, presumably for the bartender to use as notes for his eventual novel. The bartender himself remains nameless. Intriguing, you say. A little quirky.
But WAIT! There’s more! The story is told in second person. Yes, that’s right. Like in a choose your own adventure story, except without the choices, and filled with imperatives, the most common transition between vignettes being the word ‘discuss’. Confused? Here’s an excerpt:
Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room at seven o’clock and waiting on a barstool for the high to hit. There is a faint chalk line of daylight at the base of the front door and two customers are looking over at you. Their drinks are empty and they want to call out but you make them uncomfortable. Why, they are wondering, is that man smiling? The bar is silent and the pills congregate in your fingertips like lazy students in an empty hall. (Ablutions, pg. 9).
I’ll admit it sounds a little odd at first, but there’s something convincing about this over-the-shoulder narrator: the voice lures you in, injecting a uniqueness to this classic addiction tale. The writing is fresh, strong, descriptive despite its simplicity. DeWitt knows how to write. If only he had picked a plot with a little more substance to it!
As for the characters, all of them — except the bartender’s wife — are beyond the scope of pity. They are despicable, ugly, conniving, described on a very superficial level as befits a bartender’s knowledge of his customers. Even the bartender himself (“you”) is for most of the book beyond hope, and rather than rooting for him, I found myself a little unsettled by his life, and wishing he’d just die or disappear. An odd choice on the author’s part, to make the main character so unlikeable. But the fact that it is written in second tense ties you somehow to him, forces you to read on. I think if it weren’t written in second tense, I wouldn’t have stuck it through.
Continuing with my complaints about the plot, the ending felt forced. I realize this is an easy criticism to make, but it was too manic, chaotic, rushed… It was as if the author just wanted to wrap things up and get them over with.
In sum, Ablutions is worth reading for the language alone. This is deWitt’s debut novel, and promises great things: he knows how to write well, and can add freshness even to a concept as tired as addiction.