The second greatest honor in America is to be accepted as a regular in your local bar. The first is to be granted free drinks on a regular basis by your favorite bartender. It took me over a year to be accepted as a regular at the sea-side hang that came to be my second home. It was another year before someone told the day shift bartender–I always liked to get the drinking part of the day out of the way early–that I was the guy who’d written him up in the L.A. Weekly‘s yearly “Best Of” issue as “Best Bartender for Beach Bums.” Something that resembled a friendship followed, a friendship cemented by my generous tips and his endless on-the-house supply of Jack Daniels and Jameson Irish Whiskey.
It didn’t take long for me to realize those free shots which I took as a sign of friendship were an excuse for my cocktail jockey to have snorts of his own. Maybe that’s why the bartender in Patrick deWitt’s first novel, Ablutions, seemed familiar. DeWitt’s bartender facilitates his own drinking by setting up his regulars. His on-the-job imbibing helps him deal with the fact that, well, he’s a bartender. As the book’s title suggest, drinking can be a sort of cleansing.
A full day of throwing down booze can be tiring, especially when you have a shift to finish. Like deWitt’s character, my favorite bartender disappeared occasionally– sometimes with me–to do stamina-enhancing powders. These excursions were followed by more booze. Trouble usually followed. My barman regularly got into it with the dive’s day manager, a nasty English woman with a drinking problem of her own. They burned time insulting each other’s genitals and ancestry. Eventually, he walked out. My on-the-house drinking had different repercussions: lost work, alienation, divorce and a general decline in character. Ablutions’ bartender follows both paths.
The book is written in the second person, as in, “You have bad teeth and your breath is poor. Your tips consequently are also poor…” The technique makes identifying with You unavoidable. You can’t help but feel guilty about You’s behavior because, after all, it’s you. Jay McInerney used this technique of second-person, guilt-by-association in Bright Lights, Big City, indicting an entire generation of coke-snorting professional scenesters and hangers-on from the early Reagan years. DeWitt’s You has no such problems with achievement. His troubles are with money, with cleanliness, with his wife, with drugs, with the women that he escorts back to the storeroom; in short of a different class all together. Like McInerney’s shiftless professionals, You follows predictable drinking-life scenarios of regret, cures and relapses. He shares their self-loathing which is mirrored by his disdain for the regulars. The regulars, in turn, love him and can’t keep their from touching him. The suggestion in this laying of hands is that You is somehow a holy man, a shaman of drink.
It’s the barflys that give Ablutions its character. The low-brow Hollywood bar where You works resembles Boardner’s and any number of other Hollywood dives, most now gone or gentrified, that were loaded with drunken souls. In sections that begin with the command “Discuss,” You introduces a clientele that could only be found east of Vine Street. There’s Curtis, a “disconsolate black man and regular with a law enforcement fetish” who suffers from a skin condition and plays the Rolling Stones’ “Memory Hotel” over and over. There’s the doorman Antony, who accidentally cuts a man’s thumb off his third night on the job. Danielle, at 56, has “brittle, overdyed burgundy hair and orange lipstick and many sad tattoos.” Sam is the bar’s “principle cocaine dealer.” Then there’s a former child actor who is “red and bloated, but beneath the bleached hair and tattoos you see traces of the baby face that brought him stardom.” And let’s not forget an “alcoholic and narcotics-addicted pharmacist woman who you believe is actually a pre-op transsexual male.” Each is a story to themselves.
As in most booze-driven tales, denial plays a role but not as large of one as you might think. You’s self-loathing is disguised by his disgust for others. He attempts escape but, as every recovering drunk knows (and I don’t claim to be one), no matter where you go, there’s a drink waiting. He pays the obligatory visit to Las Vegas—think Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas–where he gets a vision of his own future succinctly outlined in a note scribbled on a napkin left for an offensive bartender: “You are forty years old, a bartender…You hate the customers and the work but are trapped…You have wasted you life drinking and doing drugs and sleeping beside women with hay for brains…You are alone and of no use to the world, save for of getting people drunk.” The second-person irony here is as strong as Wild Turkey.
You’s reoccurring difficulties are both comic and disturbing and deWitt’s resolution of this dead end leaves you liking his hero less. What’s most intoxicating about the book is its depiction of bar culture and its strange and varied group of regulars. Because of them, Ablution goes down as easily as your third drink and is just as heady. Here’s to them…and You.