Because I have such a backlog of books to write about, I’ll combine books 2 & 3 of my pile of 20 Books of Summer (see the full list here) into one post…
Ablutions by Patrick de Witt
Canadian, Patrick de Witt is the author of one of my favourite novels – The Sisters Brothers (reviewed here). Before the tour de force which was his second novel, he wrote a slim and slightly experimental book a couple of years earlier.
Subtitled ‘Notes for a novel’, Ablutions is the story of a nameless bartender in a Hollywood bar and his descent into addiction alongside all his regular customers. It being a Hollywood bar, our narrator is an author manqué , so he doesn’t write a diary, he makes notes, so the novel is told in vignette form, most of which start with the words ‘Discuss the….’. It begins:
Discuss the regulars. They sit in 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. Some have jobs, children, spouses, cars, and mortgages, while others live with their parents or in transient motels and are on government assistance, a curious balance of classes particular to the parts of Hollywood devoid of klieg lights and make-believe. There are sometimes limousines at the curb out front; other nights feature police cars and ambulances and vicious street scenarios. The bar interior resembles a sunken luxury liner of the early 1900s, mahogany and brass, black-burgundy leather coated in dust and ash. It is impossible to know how many times the ownership has changed hands.
We get to meet all of the regulars as the bartender doles out the drinks – including many free ones. He’s allowed to have some drinks too and his poison of choice is the expensive whisky – Jamesons. (He should have tried Bushmills – much nicer!). The bartender drinks more and more, his work suffers, but all the time he is planning an escape from this dead-end job.
DeWitt’s dead-pan humour is already in position, these vignettes are often blackly comical especially in their portrayal of the regulars. The bartender has many bad points, but he’s not all bad, he deserves a chance at redemption. Unhappy and lonely, awash in whisky, can he clean himself up or will he drown? An engaging debut that is all the better for its brevity. Cheers it ain’t! (8/10)
Source: Own copy. Patrick deWitt, Ablutions (Granta, 2009) paperback, 164 pages.
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Weight by Jeanette Winterson
This novel from 2005 was the third in the Canongate Myths series (see my separate page for this series here). Winterson based her story on the Greek myth of Atlas and Heracles.
Atlas was one of the Titans, and he had been doomed to forever hold the Earth upon his shoulders. We don’t dwell on his predicament unduly, instead concentrating on his encounter with Heracles. One of the twelve labours of Heracles was to fetch some golden apples from Hera’s garden, which was tended by Atlas’ daughters. Unable to pick the apples himself, Heracles agrees to take the weight of the Earth while Atlas gets them. However, Atlas, who has been profoundly depressed by his torment, offers to deliver them for Heracles. Heracles though manages to trick Atlas back into carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Winterson doesn’t take a conventional approach to telling this story though. She takes a metafictional approach inserting herself into the story, as the narrator retelling the story – and then reflecting upon it and how it parallels with her own life:
When I was born my mother gave me away to a stranger. I had no say in that. It was her decision, my fate.
Later, my adopted mother rejected me too. And told me I was none of her, which was true.
Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself
My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.
Then she leaps back into the Greek myth, to see how Atlas had been affected by his experience too. This is a dark little tale, very brooding, quite provocative as you might expect from Winterson. I particularly liked her refrain which runs through it…
I want to tell the story again.
Source: Own copy. Jeanette Winterson, Weight (Canongate, 2005) paperback, 168 pages.