Q&A: Patrick deWitt, Ablutions

Welcome to another installment of Q&A, my ongoing series of short interviews with authors I like. This time I spoke with Patrick deWitt, a Vancouver Island-born, Portland-based author whose debut book, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, drew rave reviews upon its release last year.

The novel tells the story of an unnamed bartender in a steadily degenerating bar in the centre of Hollywood’s underbelly, and details the various ways—professional, marital, personal—in which his life is falling apart. He’s perfected a system of vomiting silently so his wife doesn’t find out just how drunk he is; he’d rather swallow a dislodged molar than show his boss how run-down and decrepit his body has become. All of this is given an extra chilly twist by being delivered in second-person narration, where the “he” of the bartender is replaced with “you”.

deWitt was kind enough to send me a copy of Ablutions in advance of its paperback release at the end of March. It’s the sort of novel you know you’re going to adore within the first few paragraphs—precise, scathing, and pitch-dark without being maudlin or melodramatic.

Here’s our conversation.

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Much of Ablutions is devoted to character sketches of the employees and various clientele that frequent the bar. They’re extremely vivid, and to my mind utterly convincing. Aside from all suffering from some degree of alcoholism, what, if anything, do they have in common with one another? Are they more similar than different, or vice versa?

Patrick deWitt: I think they’re very similar in that they all suffer from acute loneliness. Having a destination where they might be recognized and welcomed is key to them, much more so than for your average man or woman. This is probably why they band together despite differences in age and background—they’re bringing solace to one another by simply sitting side by side and making small talk.

Do you have a favourite of the regular customers? Any that you’re particularly fond, or frightened, of?

PD: I’m very fond of Junior, the crack addict who roams the streets out front of the bar, because he’s base and pure of heart at the same time. Despite all the ugliness that’s involved in maintaining his habit, he remains guileless. A neat trick. 

The most fearful regular has to be Joe, because while the other regulars might occasionally, through self-abuse and addiction, become temporarily insane, Joe’s already there, and capable of anything.

There’s one notable absence in these sketches, and that’s the bar’s owner. He and his wife are around as much as anyone, but the protagonist doesn’t seem much interested in talking about them. Why is that? 

PD: The book is about what happens to this group of gluttons who have no one to police their behaviour, so to introduce authority figures would only obscure that aspect of the story. Maybe the owners are underwritten, but their role in the narrative was always meant to be slight.

For the protagonist, things like bosses and cops and doctors are dark, peripheral figures to be skirted at all costs. 

The world shown in the book is compelling and often charismatic, but you never glamourize the lifestyle the way other artists might be tempted to. When the protagonist vomits all over himself, or shits his pants in public, it’s not exactly noble. Was that (ie. the glamourizing) a concern for you going in?

PD: I wanted to avoid writing a pro-squalor book, but at the same time it had to be truthful, and the fact of the matter is that this kind of subject matter, however it’s presented, can be seductive, especially for younger readers. I do hope Ablutions isn’t aggressively that kind of story, though it’s inevitable that some will find it engaging for the wrong reasons. I can only pray, when they start shitting their pants, that they don’t expect me to make reparations.

I wonder how judgmental you want readers to be of your characters. The book definitely functions as a cautionary tale, but it seems like there’s more to it than that. Part of using the second-person narration is forcing us to engage with this world and get caught up in its off-kilter morality, right?

PD: Do people actually envision themselves in the story when they read the second-person voice? Because that’s not how it works for me. [Oh, it definitely did for me. I felt like the narrator was a voice whispering in my ear the whole time.] But to answer your question, it seems the book’s admirers fall into two categories: Those that can relate to the characters and sympathize with them directly, and those that can’t fathom the characters at all, and who watch the story unfold with a snuff-film-type curiosity. Of course I would prefer for the reader to be sympathetic, because I certainly am, but if they’re coming at it from a sociological point of view, that’s all right, too.

Ablutions is subtitled Notes for a Novel. If the protagonist got his act together and sorted all of his notes out, do you think his finished book would be any good?

PD: Ha ha!

What’s next for you? Is there a second novel in the works—or something different?

PD: There’s a sophomore novel I’m working on called The Warm Job, which follows two brothers hired to find and kill an inventor in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. There’s some of the traditional adventure-yarn violence involved, but at the core it’s a story of neurosis and sibling rivalry and loneliness; also it touches on the work-life theme that was present in Ablutions.

Secondly, I wrote a screenplay for the director Azazel Jacobs called Terri, which is about a monstrous adolescent who locates other monsters, and together they form a kind of union or alliance whereby they can eat their beans on toast in peace. If all goes according to plan, this will begin filming later this year.  

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Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy Ablutions: Amazon (Canada); Powell’s BooksAmazon (U.S.).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

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