Ablutions

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Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Patrick deWitt’s debut novel is the viciously hilarious story of an alcoholic, pill-popping, 32-year-old Hollywood bartender in the midst of a slow and steady downward spiral. Told deftly in the second person—a potentially annoying conceit—deWitt’s portrayal of the drinking life is staunchly unromantic. (Consider him the anti-Bukowski.) The author, an ex-barman himself, poses the book as “notes on a novel,” arranged in short, anecdotal snippets that read like the outline for a future, more elaborate project. This risk could have resulted in an underrealized mess, but the result is an accessible, side-splitting story that never buckles under its apparently haphazard structure. The cast of characters—which include a former child star and various tawdry, L.I.I.T.-slurping women—adds background to the main narrative of a man whose life and ambition are drowning in an ocean of Jamesons.

Much like a typical dive, Ablutions is rife with sad hookups, occasional brutality and maudlin bursts of emotion. Things get pretty bleak—at one point our besotted hero punches a horse in the face—but don’t mistake this for a cautionary tale about the perils of booze. A more conventional book would find the protagonist bottoming out and moving on, or at least in the redemptive bed of an understanding woman. But deWitt is committed to subverting those clichs: The closest the novel gets to recovery is a road-trip “journey of self-discovery” that finds the bartender shotgunning cans of beer on the highway. Ablutions might make you revisit that New Year’s resolution to lay off the sauce, but its strange and funny declarations evoke much more than a drinker’s life. Despite its messy topic, the book becomes a welcome rarity: an experimental novel that’s also a page-turner.—Scott Indrisek

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By Patrick deWitt. Houghton Mifflin, $23.

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