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Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
Patrick deWitt
Granta Books, 176pp, £10.99

Working in a bar with hardened regulars, real old soaks, can feel a bit like being an executioner, except that you earn just a minimum wage and your victims do most of the work for you. Alcoholism is a horrible spectacle and bartenders have a ringside seat, watching their customers dismantle their lives as they start by losing little things, such as the money in their pocket and the power of speech, and then less recoverable assets: driving licences, spouses, their dignity. As the nameless barman who narrates Ablutions notes when one of his regulars is called a loser, “You are traumatised to finally understand its true meaning – someone who is lost, and who is losing, and who will continue to lose for the rest of his life until he is dead and in the ground.”

Much of Ablutions – a series of intense, episodic observations about working in a Hollywood dive bar that the narrator intends to turn into a novel – consists of remarks of this kind. The rest is less cheerful. The bartender is disgusted by his customers, who “sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds”, but is just as self-destructive and subsists on a diet of alcohol and drugs. His daily routine of working, drinking, drink-driving and vomiting is broken when his wife leaves him and he embarks on a series of mindless sexual encounters, described in a manner that makes Charles Bukowski seem like Anaïs Nin, and on a road trip consisting largely of visits to dive bars in Las Vegas, Colorado and the Grand Canyon. Even in the desert, he is haunted, by the ghost of a woman murdered at his workplace and the wreck of his own life. It is only back at his bar, where his theft of $20 from the cash register goes unnoticed, that he can begin to plan a viable escape route.

As a chronicle of alcoholism and depression, Ablutions is unflinching. DeWitt is particularly good at depicting the cycles in which these problems whirl: the protagonist’s intention of making his road trip without alcohol – the “grand if overly dramatic purpose” of the whole journey – is scuppered by a “bottle of pills at a price so low you were morally unable to turn them down”, which he hopes will offset the craving, but are so strong that they call for drink. The narrator’s behaviour is too exaggeratedly debased to be sympathetic, for all that the use of the second person – “you have bad teeth and your breath is poor”, “you are a trained silent vomiter . . . This skill was not developed overnight” – is intended to make the action feel personal. But his loathing, for himself as much as anyone else, is totally believable.

So, all in all, this is not what you would call an uplifting read, particularly as its author claims it was inspired by his own experiences of bar work in California. Yet this unusual and forceful account of bottle-to-mouth living is still weirdly engrossing, and the precise observations drip with black humour (addicts are described as clustering around a pile of cocaine “like wiggling piglets on a tit”). And although the milieu will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has put in the hours on either side of the bar, whether you, as a reader, want to be dragged headlong into a world the narrator is so desperate to escape is another matter. It’s really just a question of whether you have the stomach for it.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009