“Discuss the regulars.”
So begins “Ablutions”, the first novel by Patrick de Witt. Reviewers have said that it is not as good as the two subsequent books – but it is.
It is written in the second person which isn’t always appealing but in this case it suits perfectly. The blurb on the back cover describes the book as “Hilariously gloomy”; neither word is correct. Certainly there is plenty of black humour in the book but it is not hilarious, and gloomy is too slight a word to describe the terrible sadness which runs throughout.
The prose is wonderful:
” . . . before settling into a life of wealth and flashbulbs.“
” . . . the desire to celebrate the rhythm of your own beating heart.”
The premise is this: a barman, in a bar off Hollywood, is making notes for a novel so there is no narrative as such – each episode takes place in the present – but now and then the reader becomes aware of time passing with the detieration of the barman’s health. He studies the failed actors and writers who people the bar every day and the characters are wonderful, (if people so bereft of hope and joy could be described as wonderful), the ageing child actor, the crack addict, the unhappy doorman, among them. A temporary bar manager is the only one to escape into glamourous Hollywood, a flash of light in the dim room.
The amount of alcohol and drugs consumed is staggering – causing terrible hangovers and punishing the poor, malnourished bodies. And sex: there’s plenty of sex in the backroom, and there’s a scene where a sort of orgy takes place, not like a penthouse orgy with champagne and nibbles and beautiful bodies; no, it’s a sad, woeful, cold occasion, not even lively enough to be called sordid.
Throughout the book there are snatches of empathy and snatches of vicious, casual violence, but loneliness pervades all. The barman, afraid to give in to tears in case he could never stop, hurts himself to deflect the feeling:
“Once this starts you believe you will not be able to stop, or will soon reach a point from which you will not return without damaging your mind . . . you draw back your hand and punch the brick wall as hard as you can.”
There is very little direct dialogue but this is not noticeable as the barman is always addressing himself so it reads like conversation. The pace and shape of the book is perfect in the way that “Of Mice and Men” is perfect, no part too long, none too short, the last line as important as the first.