Monday, May 14, 2012

Fiction: Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt

It’s faintly terrific to see Patrick DeWitt’s mostly unremarked 2009 debut getting a second spin. Ablutions (Anansi) is a very different creature than DeWitt’s sophomore effort. Last year The Sisters Brothers went on to win the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was a finalist for both the Scotiabank Giller Award and the Man Booker Prize. In short, The Sisters Brothers created a hulabaloo with both readers and awards judges and made the kind of impression that had everyone looking backwards as well as forward. After all, if The Sisters Brothers was all that terrific, what on earth had we already missed?

On the surface of things, Ablutions is a very different kind of book. Slender. Contemporary. Unexpectedly dark. DeWitt’s observations are searingly trenchant in an oddly poetic way. There were elements of romp to The Sisters Brothers, a sort of dark reimagining of a western tale. Ablutions, on the other hand, is everything but funny. Or rather, in some ways the book is hilarious, but it’s a self-conscious hilarity, because just so much is going wrong.
Discuss the regulars. They sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds, eyes wet with alcohol. They whisper into their cups and seem to be gloating about something -- you will never know what.
The protagonist is a Hollywood barman, collecting experiences for a book about his clientele. At first we are amused by his observations, as indeed is he. Little by little, though, we see him lose himself in an ever-deepening vat of over-indulgence and addiction, padded by self-loathing and, ultimately, attempts at self-destruction.

This is the sort of novel that other writers might try to make redemptive. Not DeWitt, though. In some ways, Ablutions is a seedy, boozy haiku. Reed thin, yet razor-sharp and as muscular as can be. This earliest DeWitt is brilliant. A tautly wound forecast of things that were, upon publication, still to come. ◊

Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.

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