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.
And although, as the narrator begins to record his observations, he seems to be looking at these people as a kind of freak show, it isn’t long before he finds himself in much the same condition. His is the story of a man’s descent into the depths of an alcoholic oblivion and then his somewhat futile attempts to dig his way out.
While the subject matter here smacks of 19th century naturalism, Ablutions is no Zolaesque social treatise. This is black comedy. These may not be loveable drunks of the Foster Brooks variety, but they are ridiculously laughable in their inadequacies. Attempts at relationships disintegrate into ineffectual sexual encounters at best and disgusting humiliations at worst. Friendships last as long as the drinks and money hold out. More often than not a night’s drinking ends up in vomiting and passing out, bleeding and passing out, or just plain passing out. Vows to quit drinking are treated as jokes one beer at a time. Whether it is the narrator or the people he describes, these are not tragic figures; they are overwhelmed by a world they can’t handle. Drugs and alcohol merely disguise their inadequacies, and not for very long, at that.
Ablutions is a nightmare vision that will have you chuckling and then wondering what you were laughing about. The story reeks of honesty, but it is the honesty of nausea and excrement. It gives you a view of the nightmare from a distance, and from a distance is most surely the best way to view it.