Think of a novel like William Kennedy's Ironweed; think of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh. Put them in a painting by an artist like George Grosz, and you've got a good idea about what Patrick deWitt's debut novel Ablutions is like. Set most of the time in a Los Angeles bar peopled with a cast of drunks and lowlifes, it is narrated by an alcoholic barback whose own life is rapidly falling apart. These are not mild mannered drunks played for laughs. They are not even Falstaffian reprobates that are at least jolly good company, if not very admirable human beings. These are the dregs and outcasts drowning their misery in booze and drugs.
Presented as notes for a novel, the narrator seems to be jotting down little reminders of things he needs to talk about when he gets around to writing this novel that more than likely will never get written, or at least to understand these people and perhaps at the same time understand himself. Many times a section will begin with the imperative, discuss. "Discuss the regulars," the book begins. "Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room...." "Discuss the effects of the full moon on the weekend crowds...." It is as if the act of putting things on paper will somehow get at truth. "It bothers you to know that the truth will never reveal itself spontaneously and you keep on your toes for clues."
Many of the passages are little character sketches of the 'regulars' and the staff. Curtis is a black man with a 'law enforcement fetish.' He sports an empty holster and mirrored sunglasses. He started as a model customer tipping freely, but gradually became annoying looking to freeload. Simon, the manager, is a South African with pretentions to an acting career and a coke habit. Sam is a drug dealer who brings his kids with him when he conducts business at the bar. Raymond draws furtively on napkins which he keeps hidden from prying eyes while he sits at the bar. There are crack addicts, whores, petty thieves, transvestites, has-been actors, and actor wannabees, and what they all have in common is the need to find some kind of excitement, some kind of escape from the emptiness of their lives.