Ablutions by Patrick deWitt (2009)

L: 8.5/10
M: 3/10
J: 3/10

Analysis that could just as well be pieced together from aspiring quotes carved into the tile behind a urinal:

I can’t recall many books that I’ve read that use second person, definitely any lately, so the next book, Ablutions, was a nice change of pace. Around the second or third time I picked the book up, my curiosity was peaked on exactly what an “ablution” was. I had never heard the word before, and still, my mind refuses to not see absolution when I see it. 

Luckily, it was around that same time our nameless protagonist gave the definition of “a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers.” The word comes to him from a ghost he sees at the bar he works at, and the mere fact that the word wasn’t in his vocabulary is enough proof for him that the ghost is real. It’s little parts of the book that hooked me in early, some more than others relatable. 

Ablutions is a mess; there is no doubt about that. Its structure alone is abnormal, to the point that it becomes part of the narrative. The novel’s tagline is “Notes for a novel,” and that’s exactly how it feels. It’s bits and pieces of the most interesting parts of the narrator’s day while working and drinking his life to its eventual slow decay in a gross Los Angeles bar. I feel like this book is just how the Field Notes I carry around each day would read if I accidentally dropped it on the sidewalk. It’s not nearly as interesting, alarming, or narratively structured, but it has the same feel.

The book is assembled in four chapters, lacking a real beginning and end or any character arcs. The first introduces the bartender and his rapidly declining life. He works as a barback, drinking heavily at work and miraculously making it home each night alive. More interesting is how his wife is able to stay with him for so long before ending the chapter with the obvious separation.

The second chapter finds the bartender falling even further somehow, sleeping with every toaster-headed girl who walks through the door. It’s a very gross and vivid section, and it all hits out of nowhere. His character has already become more disgusting than all the litter he has sex with, so its difficultness to imagine makes it all the more striking.

The third has the bartender make a trip to Grand Canyon in a failed attempt to get clean. The trip was a failure from the start and felt like an unnecessary detour. I feel like if this story went a different direction here, it could have perhaps had a chance for closure. Instead, the fourth and final have him return to work and begin stealing, cutting off all the ties he has with the strange characters he, by default, calls friends.

The pacing of this story, the notes to himself not to forget these “important” moments, filled me with anxiety and dread. It brought about memories of the frantic pacing of when Bret Easton Ellis is at his fullest fervor. My biggest disconnect with the novel is the fact that the feeling only occurs at the beginning and the end. I felt as lost as the character during the middle passages when the book just spun its wheels.

The nameless bartender is also characterless, a man who can only be described as gross while he is actively destroying his organs. The personality comes from the circle of regular customers who fill up his days. They are initially introduced one after another, equally dirty and broken in their own way, somehow more colorful than the last. There is a section when they all come together for a disgusting drug-fueled gangbang, and I had a strong twinge of excitement when they all got to hang out.

For a story that boils down to a drunk bar back doing bad things and getting away with it, I was still excited each time I picked it up. It’s far from perfect and was missing a degree of structure that might adversely affect this mess of a story. Some pieces of his tale rang hilariously close to similar dark nights during my early twenties working at a bowling alley and tending bar. For this, maybe I’ll have a stronger connection than others. I am very interested to see what else Patrick deWitt is capable of and am very intrigued to see him as the writer of The Sister Brothers, a movie I have forgotten to watch for years. 

Analysis from a blank slate:

I wanted to like this book and not just because it was my pick, but I have been in a melancholy place, and this book felt like it fit my vibe. Now, it was melancholy, but that is about as interesting as it got for me. I liked the way the author shared a story, but I just wish that a story was told. I felt the main character had enough potential to keep the book going, but there was never anything more than apathetic energy given to him, and I’m only willing to give as much as I receive. I mean, far be it from me to try and dig up your purpose in life and meaning for living and doing when you don’t give a shit.
In all, I would never recommend this book to a friend. I feel as if when I leave a story behind, I want there to be something that I took from it that sticks with me. I don’t mind if what I’m taking away is frustration at the ending or being in love with a certain character. What I do mind is walking away from a story that has left no lasting impression. Tasteless as water when what I really wanted was a Taco Bell Dr. Pepper.

Analysis from a high horse:

I, frankly, just feel a bit disconnected from this book. It was quite a few pages that took me nowhere except watching a man drink/drug himself through a despicably achieved escape from the bar where a majority of the story took place. Perhaps in a time of a worldwide pandemic, it isn’t a novel concept to just watch people degrade and feel entertained by it? I didn’t care for the MC, any of his acquaintances, or the plot because there was nothing to endear me. I just felt… indifferent and that, sadly, is one of the worst things to feel for a book.

Patrick deWitt

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