Ablutions: Character Sketches Of Sketchy Characters

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Ablutions by Patrick deWitt may be the best second-person narrative of novel-length I’ve read, probably beating out Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as to which is the better read for my money.  If The Screwtape Letters count as a second-person novel, then that would probs be my number one choice.  I guess The Perks Of Being A Wallflower was second person (it was a series of letters written to someone), but I think I prefer Ablutions.  It’s difficult to compare a book you’ve just read with one you’ve read a long time ago; the feelings shift and settle, the judgments blur and fade.

I think the premise or excuse for using second person in Ablutions is brilliant:  these are the notes for some future novel written to himself by a writer currently earning a living by working in a bar.  Nice concept; I’m envious that I didn’t come up with it myself.

The writing of the novel is excellent; here are a few excerpts from the first paragraph of the novel, an example of deWitt’s style (his chapters often begin, “Discuss… “) :

“Discuss the Regulars.  They sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds, eyes wet with alcohol.” […] “The bar interior resembles a sunken luxury liner of the early 1900s, mahogany and brass, black-burgundy leather coated in dust and ash.”

The “you” of the story is an underachiever and closet-alcoholic.  He is an outsider at the bar and a seemingly non-participatory member of his young, failing marriage.  The wife barely figures in the story at all, which can either be considered a failure of narrative or a smart way to show just how distanced from his own life the narrator/narrated-to is.

DeWitt maintains a dark, sardonic tone throughout the novel.  For instance:

“The sinks are full with cold brown water and your arm is like a hook as you dump in all the dirty glasses and you hear the muted sound of glass breaking underwater and want to plunge your palms in and shred them through but you only empty the sinks and watch the mound of glass shards shining under the lurid red light of the bar.”

Most of the action takes place in the bar, a Hollywood dive where the protagonist is a “bar-back” (basically an assistant bartender for those of you have had the wisdom or good fortune never to work in bar).  Even when the author of our notes-to-self goes on a road-trip, the writing still has a stifling, closed-in feel to it.

I have a correction to make:  I wrote just now that our “protagonist is a bar-back.”  Actually, calling him a “protagonist” may be doing that term a disservice.  The young man mostly just drifts along observing others.  He is also not a person one can be overly sympathetic with:  he’s a bad husband, slacker employee (six years at the same job and he hasn’t even climbed up to bartender, yet), sneaky little thief, lying alcoholic (there’s a redundancy there, I know), and so amoral that he actually goes out of his way to increase the chances that a person he doesn’t like comes down with Hep-C!

One of my favorite exchanges in the novel is this one, when a new manager at the bar, sympathetic to the plight of some customers who never get their big Hollywood break, asks our man:

“How would you feel after fifteen years of failure?”

“Ask me in five years,” answers our sardonic bar-back.

The other characters are drawn as even less likable.  In fact, one of the failures of the novel I think is that it is largely a series of character sketches of sketchy characters; it doesn’t add-up to that full novel experience.  It fails to absorb the reader fully into another world in much the same way that I found that Catch-22 –wonderfully comic series of character sketches that it was!– failed as a “novel.”  For instance, a real or imagined ghost makes a few appearances early in the novel and then just sorta fades away (no wordplay intended there).  The author attempts to correct for this flaw somewhat by bringing everyone back for a victory-less victory lap in the concluding pages, but it’s too little too late.

Of course, this was a first novel, and I know from experience, when most of us writers are writing our first novel, we are writing it in snatches and don’t have the luxury of working on it full time in a concentration-conducive environment.

In the beginning of Ablutions, there was a bit of tension building:  would the author destroy himself? would his marriage crumble?  But somewhere along the way, to the detriment of the story, that tension dissipated.  It was as if the compelling force of the novel got to the point of taxi-ing on the runway, but just couldn’t get off the ground for a full flight.

Part of the beauty of the novel is that the author knows the details to add to make the main character’s workplace environs believable.  I would have been shocked to have discovered that the author never actually worked in a bar.  Turns out, of course, that he did– for about six years.  Luckily for the reader, his notes to himself that he took down for his “future novel” served him well.

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