By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I approach the Silent Movie Theatre on a recent Sunday night, looking out for the Echo Park porkpie-hat army I fear is already laying siege on Fairfax Avenue. After all, the main draw this evening is novelist Patrick deWitt, and he comes with lineage. His older brother is Mike “Cali” deWitt, the force (of nature) behind Hope Gallery on Echo Park Avenue, and the Teenage Teardrops label and blog, which are as integral to the local scene as indie rock. (His other brother is the musician Nick deWitt, one of the founding members of the Seattle band Pretty Girls Make Graves.) Patrick himself lived in Elysian Park for years before making his escape to a more anonymous life in the Northwest. And now that he’s set to debut Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, his deeply affecting narrative of derelict Los Angeles’ miasma, I wonder if more people will be huffing cigarettes and snapping cell phone pics outside the theater than listening to the reading inside.
Earlier, I meet deWitt at a coffee shop a stone’s throw from his brother’s gallery and his former residence. His new novel, I tell him, is set at the last bar at which I drank, a well-known Hollywood spot that could never seem to muster the will to make good on its glamorous aspirations. The place felt very Ricardo Montalban–era Chrysler LeBaron to me, and I didn’t stay much longer than the 15 minutes or so it took to down about five pints of Guinness.
DeWitt didn’t get off so easily. He worked there as a dishwasher and bar back for six years. “It was about five years too long,” he says.
About four years ago, deWitt made a break for Bainbridge, outside Seattle, where he labored for his father’s construction company while he got himself together. “I was drinking too much and I needed a change,” deWitt says, which will strike anyone who reads Ablutions as understatement.
In Bainbridge, he began crafting a novel from his experiences at the bar — experiences he shared with denizens who shall remain nameless out of respect. The milieu of down-and-outers and a protagonist trying to escape the undertow of oblivion will feel as familiar as an old coat to those who have dabbled in such things, but Ablutions’ revelation is the freshness of deWitt’s prose. Written in a second-person, notes-to-self style that could be a disaster in lesser hands, Ablutions is quirkily metered, brutally honest and as funny as a heartbreak.
If he is returning to the scene of his crimes as a conquering hero, the writer exhibits none of the I-told-you-so swagger.
“It’s always strange for me to come back,” says deWitt, who now lives in Portland with his wife, Leslie. “It’s uncomfortable in some ways. All my friends are here, so it’s comforting in some ways, and uncomfortable in others.”
“How is it uncomfortable?” I ask.
“It’s more personal quirks than anything. I guess I have some anxiety issues,” he says. “The reason I like Portland is the idea of going to a supermarket and knowing there’s no way to be recognized. L.A. is so social.”
I ask if he’s anxious about the hometown premiere of Ablutions.
“I have some medication called beta blockers,” he replies in his soft-spoken manner. “My method for dealing with [the anxiety] is to take my medication and have two or three stiff drinks, not to the point where I’m slurring. It’s still nerve-racking.”
It seems that deWitt, with his quiet, stop-you-in-your-tracks writing, has snuck up on the literary world, which rarely takes chances on anyone who hasn’t sprung from the usual MFA programs or from the ranks of the McSweeney tribe. The book strikes me as a marvel. Of course, his arrival at this place is no miracle. It’s the result of perseverance. DeWitt, who never finished high school, says he knew he wanted to be a writer since he was 17. He labored in obscurity for years, sending out short stories and poems to literary journals — to no avail.
“It was 10 years of photocopied rejections,” he laughs. “You get the occasional heartening comment.”
About seven years ago, he finally placed a story in The Minus Times, a literary zine run by Hunter Kennedy, and associated with the Drag City record label. That and the success of a self-help parody, Help Yourself Help Yourself — which he wrote in a couple months to give himself a break from the novel, and which his brother Cali published through his label — re-energized him.
“I didn’t want to write about alcoholism, really,” he says, “but one of the motivations was to have something positive come out of what was a difficult job and a difficult time in my life.”