by Patrick deWitt

Ablutions CoverWell, this one was a doozy. I really don’t know what I was expecting going into this book, but, after reading The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, it sure caught me by surprise. And I kind of wish I was a bit prepared for a story as depressing as Ablutions turned out to be. I mean, it was very well-written and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it just left me so drained afterwards.

Ablutions is presented as the notes for a novel, being written by a bartender working in a seedy Hollywood pub, and let me say that the second-person narration, along with the passages where the narrator reminds himself to mention a character or something that happened to him, really makes it feel like the jottings of an author. However, through very specific details of the world around him, the author breathes significant life into his story; as such, deWitt flows between his “notes” and a coherent narrative almost seamlessly. (I’d often find myself lost in the story, only to be reminded of the initial “notes” conceit when the narrator reminds himself to mention so-and-so, later becoming immersed all over again.) Our narrator starts off appearing to be the sole ordinary human surrounded by all sorts of quirky, unstable, and dangerous people, but it fairly rapidly becomes clear that this isn’t the case. As the narrator becomes increasingly reliant on drugs, alcohol, and countless poor choices to get through his days, we get to join him on the ride down to the gutter. Initially, we get ugliness and sadness mixed with goodwill and happiness as our narrator observes the tragic figures around him with amusement, but there comes a very jarring moment where you realize that all the levity firmly escaped this story, and all we’re left with is disgust and despair.

So, it is actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any other story that, after a certain point, leaves you with a perpetual heaviness. This probably says something about deWitt’s great skills as an author, as well as Ablutions’ clear place in worthwhile, contemporary literature, but I hope readers will steel themselves before attempting this one and, perhaps, take frequent breaks to absorb lighthearted comedies between passages.