Exclusive: Patrick deWitt’s Debut Smells Funny

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Patrick deWitt’s excellent debut novel, Ablutions, collects the musings of a nameless bartender who fears for his liver and his sanity. Presented as “notes for a novel,” deWitt crafts a second-person narrative that thrusts the reader behind the bar and into the life of a long-suffering boozer. Beginning with sharp depictions of a Hollywood dive’s motley regulars, Ablutions picks up steam as “you” hit the open road in an attempt to escape both patrons and demons. We caught up with deWitt to ask about his novel’s daring form, a potential silver-screen adaptation, and Ablutions‘ horrible smell.

Flavorpill: Your decision to write a second-person narrative creates an intimate bond between the reader and the text. Had you always envisioned Ablutions taking this form?

Patrick deWitt: No, starting out I experimented with both first and third person, but neither of these suited me. At first glance, the subject matter is somewhat familiar, even more so when paired with the traditional ‘I’ or ‘He.’ It was important to come at the story from a less recognizable place, and second person certainly fit the bill.

FP: Framing Ablutions as “notes for a novel” is evidently liberating, yet it may also serve to deflect criticism of the book’s structure or resolution. Why did you choose to employ this device?

PdW: The decision to frame the entries or chapters as notes was borne from my habit of jotting ideas down while I was behind the bar, reminding myself to discuss this or that the next day, at my writing desk. I hadn’t thought of it as a way to deflect anything and still don’t, because of course in most instances the entries aren’t notes at all, but something fully realized. I believe the book’s structure is sound, and if a reader finishes Ablutions feeling needful of further resolution it’s a safe bet we’re not a match, that I’m not the writer for them. No hard feelings on my part, and I hope there’s none returned to me.

FP: Even minor characters come alive, thanks to your facility with visual language and a discerning ear for dialogue. For a book that presents such a dark view of Hollywood, it is wonderfully cinematic. Do you imagine Ablutions as a film?

PdW: I remember speaking about this a year or so ago and saying I didn’t think it would translate well, but since then I’ve worked in the screenplay format and have a clearer understanding of the medium, and can see that it has the potential to be a very good film. The key to adapting Ablutions would be overcoming the desire to make it a traditional punish-the-viewer alcoholism or addiction story. It should be a human story, with all the curiosities intact: the ghost, The Terrible Building That Vomits Humans, the horse-punching incident, the severed thumb, the Very Tall Man, etc. I don’t think you’d have to change very much, just be cautious about what stays and what goes.

FP: The human body is everywhere in Ablutions — its shapes, maladies, fluids, secretions, functions, and betrayals. Was writing the book a particularly physical experience?

PdW: The writing itself wasn’t, but the years leading up to the writing certainly were. I’m happy you’ve asked this, actually, because from the start I wanted to address the physical trials of a habitual drinker: the simmering blood, the feeling that your pores are issuing poison, that the brain is swelling to the limits of the skull — the general toxicity. A friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, said the book smelled horribly. I think he was somewhat disgusted by it, but I took his comment as praise. It made me think I’d succeeded in re-creating that aspect of things, the body-as-overworked-machine reality.

Visit deWitt’s website (with a great trailer for Ablutions) and read an extract from the novel.