Down and Out in L.A.: Novelist Patrick deWitt Comes Home

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.”

DeWitt wrote notes to himself at work, “because I drank a lot and would black out,” he says. Those notes informed the structure of his novel, sections of which begin with the conceits “Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room” or “Discuss Brent the unhappy doorman.”

“It was a happy accident,” deWitt says. “The notes themselves were pretty engaging, so ... ”

The effect is the rendering of a desperate world unfurled from the inside out, building from the smallest, quotidian details into a more universal story of a yearning for escape. It’s the sort of stuff that’s supposedly been left for dead in the bigger-bang world of publishing, and deWitt admits he had some doubts about its chances.

“In my heart of hearts,” he says, “I didn’t believe it would be published and was surprised that it was, and by such smart and caring people.”

Not that he would have stopped had the novel not found a home.

“The thing about it is, I’ve always felt so fortunate to have writing to turn to every day. I’m obsessed with it,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”

As I drive away, I spot deWitt, standing off by himself, smoking a cigarette, his homecoming creeping closer, the bar where his book is set no more than a mile from where he will read. It’s gotta be weird.

Back at the Silent Movie Theatre, the crowd that assembles turns out to be both respectful and eager to listen — and barely a head is topped with a hat, porkpie or other. DeWitt walks in about 10 minutes late, holding a bottle of Jameson and a soft drink, smiling sheepishly as he passes.

The event begins with visual artist and part-time comedian Andrew Jeffrey Wright warming up the audience with a deadpan set that mashes up Andy Kaufman and Carrot Top, and which takes a little time to sink in but becomes increasingly funny as it does.

Then, deWitt, tall, thin, pale, a little fragile under the lights, takes the stage and introduces an animated short based on his novel by his friend Carson Mell, scored by his brother Nick. At last deWitt reads from his novel. He is slow and meticulous and his voice coats the small dark theater like a warm shot of whiskey, transporting us to the bleak, heartbreakingly funny terrain of his novel.

After is a screening of Albert Finney’s first starring role, about an angry young machinist in postwar industrial England, called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It’s based on the novel by Alan Sillitoe, one of the leading lights of the British “Angry Young Men” school of the ’50s, and one of deWitt’s heroes. Finney is amazing, and it’s easy to see how this story of being all jacked up with nowhere to go inspired deWitt.

The lights come up and the author invites the crowd to the back patio for “cigarettes and talk.”

We follow, hats optional.

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