A man walks into the bar…
There are too many places to go with that, so I’ll take the aposiopetic approach…
You are a thirty something year old man. You work at a bar that was once glamorous but is now notably seedy. There are various unsavory characters that frequent the bar; you observe them drinking themselves into oblivion nightly. You are not them. Yet. There is the crack addict and the former child star, there is the bar manager who never made it as a model, but still snorts too much cocaine and the wife whose strained countenance is really starting to aggravate your hangover in the morning. But you’ve learned to vomit silently, so that is something. To appease your wife, you switch to beer hoping it’ll improve your ruddy complexion and aid your liver. You’re clever like that.
Your wife still leaves you.
Despite your self-loathing and your constant state of inebriation to soothe that hatred, the bar scene begins to eat you alive. You have to get out. You just can’t remember if you even care.
‘You’ is a man, the unnamed narrator, who works in a failing bar in Hollywood. He is not immune to what he is serving. He is, instead, quite fond of Irish whiskey. Consider it an occupational hazard, one he engages in frequently while maintaining a running commentary on the patrons of the bar for his novel. Ostensibly, he plans to use the material for his future novel. Discuss.
‘Ablutions: Notes for a Novel’* by Patrick deWitt is a deadpan, darkly funny (if you can get past the heartbreak) novel told in the second person. The novel is only 164 pages long, but any longer and the bleak bar vignettes might have gotten too depressing to handle. It is a novel about addiction that does not judge. It has more than a hint of Bukowski and the dry humor and malicious pleasure required to earn such a comparison. However, this compelling piece of bar literature also has a voice of its own. And that voice is terribly sad and, more often than not terribly funny.
You are sitting in the magical Ford outside the bar when Junior the crack addict walk up and steps into the car and you both sit there watching the building. His smell is otherworldly, like a demon from deep in the earth’s crust, and he repeatedly passes the fiercest gas; he has been too long without his drugs and his body is causing a fuss. He does not greet you and you do not greet him; a rift has grown between Junior and everyone – he is in the worst way and the doorman says he has been robbing people with his machete blade after hours. You are not afraid of him and you do not believe he would ever do you any harm but you wish he were somewhere other than sitting at your side, wondering about the contents of your pockets.
He is fidgeting with a lighter and he finally says to you, “I need twenty dollars, man. I need it bad.” When you tell him you haven’t got any money he punches your dashboard and pouts, asking himself how long this torture might go on. You tell him to wait a minute and you enter the empty bar, retrieving twenty dollars from the safe. You walk it out to him and he is relieved but wants to know where it came from. When you tell him you stole it he looks worried and asks if you won’t get into trouble, which is insulting because you know he does not actually care one way or the other. “Do your drugs or don’t do your drugs,” you say. “Don’t stand around sobbing and bitching about it.” He straightens himself up and nods and hustles off to find his dealer. All through the night you are bothered by guilt and self-loathing for speaking with him so harshly and angered that such a man could conjure these emotions in you.
Discuss your feelings of wonder when the pilfered twenty dollars is not reported missing at the end of the night. Discuss your routine of thieving that stems from this incident, and the criminal spree you quickly embark on.
You don’t need to relate to You to enjoy this novel. You need not frequent seedy bars or engage in shitty, meaningless sex. You’re wife needn’t have left you and you don’t have to wallow in a lifetime’s worth of Irish whiskey that you vomit up in the morning. You do have to enjoy the humorous side of human misery. deWitt has managed to create a loathsome character that learns nothing in the end except that human friendship is just diseased, anti-moral conditioning. And you don’t care about that – however compelling it might be. It’s not for everyone, but it may be for you (even if you are not like You).
It was for me. 4/5.
As I don’t love whiskey (or whisky), I’ll be sticking with gin & tonic – the rather fancy Cucumber-Rosemary Gin & Tonic – just keeping it classy. Do have a drink to accompany this novel. Don’t get drunk. Do admire your restraint when you stop at just one. Or two. Three would be too many. Then, as always, do tell me what you think of ‘Ablutions’ or if you plan to read it. 164 pages of story told in the second person is more bearable than you’d think.
*This novel is part of my personal library, which means I am catching up on my to be read list.