Thursday, December 05, 2013
Ablutions - Notes for a Novel
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Published: March 08, 2014
From the Cover
A nameless barman tends a decaying bar in Hollywood and takes notes for a book about his clientele. Initially, he is morbidly amused by watching the regulars roll in and fall into their nightly oblivion, pitying them and their loneliness. In hopes of uncovering their secrets and motives, he establishes tentative friendships with them. He also knocks back pills indiscriminately and treats himself to gallons of Jameson's. But as his tenure at the bar continues, he begins to lose himself, trapped by addiction and indecision. When his wife leaves him, he embarks on a series of squalidly random sexual encounters and a downward spiral of self-damage and irrational violence. To cleanse himself and save his soul, he attempts to escape . . .
This novel was unlike anything I’ve read before, but in a good way. It sounds horribly depressing, but it’s funny and intelligent. The story goes something like this:
A man walks into a bar and he leaves, and then he keeps coming back. You see, he works there, and he’s an alcoholic. He should quit, both the job and his drinking, and he knows this, but he keeps going back to the bar until the booze, the customers and the bar itself begins to consume him. In the beginning, the narrator likes the characters in his story a little, but as his addiction takes hold, he begins to hate them all, almost as much as he hates himself.
“Ablutions” is written as a series of character sketches for a book in progress, as you might have guessed by the subtitle. It is written in second person, opening with an unnamed bartender (You), and a very skeevy part of Hollywood. The bar, its customers, and the narrator’s addiction are described in unflinchingly vivid detail. Slowly “You” becomes a victim of his job and his addiction as his wife leaves him, he begins to hate his “friends," and he drinks more and more. The reader is brought inside the head of a drowning man as he plummets toward rock bottom. Violence, magic (a magic car, to be precise), pitiful, awful sex, and vomit precede increasingly violent thoughts followed by more violence and vomit.
The humor, I think, is to keep the reader from running away screaming, because “Ablutions” is not a novel you’re meant to sit back and enjoy. It has its moments of lightness, but it is an unapologetically ugly story that boldly shines a light into the dark corners of an addict’s mind. “Ablutions” does not create a gentle picture. It’s harsh, unflinching and terrifying as “you,” the reader witness what happens when a man crosses the line from human to…something disturbing but all too common.
Second person POV is rarely done, and when it is, it’s rarely done well. However, the constant you, you, you, in this book doesn’t inspire the usual rejection from the reader. Instead it gives immediacy to the story and the characters. It works because it’s powerful. I couldn’t imagine this novel having as much impact if it was written any other way.
Speaking of characters, I have to add that the character descriptions are amazing. deWitt breathes life into each person, each gesture and detail. The harsh truth of an alcoholic’s life and mindset are painfully accurate. For example, he tells us of how an alcoholic eventually learns to vomit silently, or how he'll drink beer instead of the hard stuff for periods of time (even if he hates beer) to give his liver a break. The book is written in a way that you might imagine an addict would write it; in a series of moments that are sometimes funny, sometime violent, sometimes sad, and sometimes poetic. Occasionally he blends funny, violent, sad and poetic in a single scene.
This is not a novel for those that love hearts and flowers scattered around their characters, or those that prefer happy endings. I admire deWitt for not trying to make it pretty or acceptable, yet he still made me want to keep reading. It is what it is, and what it is, is uncomfortable. In a way, I think this book is less about addiction than it is about the general human condition. We’re longing for a connection with someone else, yet we yearn for solitude as well. We want to be part of someone’s life, just not the someones we know. We’re never quite happy with our lot in life. Even the ugliest scenes and characters have a bit of truth the reader can’t deny. Whether we’ve seen it in ourselves or someone close to us, we’ve all known these characters and these feelings or thoughts. Or maybe I’m wrong and I just know a lot of ugly, sad people.
The most amazing detail about this book for me was that by the end “you” did in fact become "me." Although I’d never experienced or thought about most of the things the narrator does, I effortlessly stepped into his shoes and I cared about him. That, for any POV, is an impressive accomplishment.
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