As a cursory read of Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark’s book, How Not To Write a Novel, will tell you, there are some things in this world guaranteed to secure you a place amongst the resolutely unpublishable. A reliance on em-dashes, flimsy characters who tell each other things they already know, timing screw-ups, bad spelling, showy erudition – all these things (and a couple of hundred others) are marks of the wannabe. Another common trait in the slush pile is Bukowski-itus: writers who want to be Bukowski, who think and feel and drink and write like Bukowski (or so they think). The thing with Bukowski-isms is, for the most part, if you don’t get published and accepted it’s because they just don’t get you, man. It’s their fault. Not yours. You’re too good for this world, man.
I mention this because, on first glance, Patrick DeWitt’s thoroughly entertaining debut, Ablutions (Notes for a Novel), could very easily sound like yet one more Bukowski retread. It’s about a guy who works in a bar. It’s written by a guy who worked in a bar. It’s about guys (for the most part) who drink in bars. Everybody drinks a lot in Ablutions. Understandably. They’re in a bar. Our narrator’s marriage is falling apart. He tends to get hammered as he serves people and then drives home in a car that miraculously fails to crash or breakdown. Over the course of the novel, we’re introduced to a lot of the regulars and a lot of the people who work at the bar and we hear their stories and how they interact with our feckless narrator (who, for the most part, everyone pretty much hates). So far, so Bukowski, right?
On paper at least. You have a clue as to what sets Ablutions apart (and what makes Patrick DeWitt potentially an author you might want to keep a real eye on) in the subtitle: Notes for a Novel. From line 1 – ‘Discuss the regulars‘ – DeWitt writes as if we are being offered a glimpse, occasionally the merest glimpse, of a fetid world. If you’ve ever seen The Hold Steady live – and have seen Craig Finn moving from one side of the stage to the other, mouthing words (extra words) to the words you know from the songs, so that it strikes you maybe the songs themselves are only the tip of a novelistic iceberg – you may kindof know what I mean. That feeling you get watching Craig Finn – that’s what it’s like reading Patrick DeWitt.
There are also similarities with Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End in the way he kinks everyday recognised familiar experiences (we’ve all drunk in a bar, become drunk in a bar, seen drunks in a bar) and sets them on their side. The writing is also just beautiful. Comic. Sad. Tragic. Perverse. This is a reality that stretches, a luminous hand pushing at the page from the other side, out to you, the reader. DeWitt fashions an unsustainable situation, a situation in which our narrator teeters on the edge of ruin, beset by the kind of health woes that aflict Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York, and caught up in a ruinous plot to steal enough dough to just get even – but, of course, ruinous plots to get even rarely work out.
There is a strange, luminous, future tense quality to the writing, as if we – the narrator and ourselves – are barrelling downhill at speed towards some terrible fate. Perhaps we are. The thing with fate is that you can only map out the dots retrospectively. What’s more, the narrator in whose company we find ourselves… well, sometimes he can be a real dick. He’s devious and he’s truculent and he’s sortof mean. And yet, unlike, say Ross Raisin’s In God’s Country or even Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher’s Boy or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory(where you start off liking the narrator and end up feeling like you’ve been tricked because the narrator is one hell of a mean bean), you always kindof like the Ablutions fella. You forgive him his trespasses and you forgive him his sins.
Any Cop?: All told, the novel is a twenty-four carat beauty, the equivalent of a quart of the finest booze you’ve ever sniftered. DeWitt more than warrants his place in the list of the dozen or so writers to watch in the future. Certainly this reader can’t wait to see what he comes up with next…