The Short Version: An unnamed bartender in a seedy Hollywood bar takes notes on his clientele – but as he begins to drink more, he becomes more and more like them: washed up, hopeless, dependent. He hits rock bottom and escapes, only to come right back to the bar to finish things properly.
The Review: I can’t talk about this book without talking about the novels that, in my head, seem like kindred spirits. There’s some Chuck Palahniuk here, some Bret Easton Ellis, some Joshua Mohr, some Hemingway too. This is an installment in a long tradition: the tradition of the bar novel. Sure, only those last two guys wrote a traditional bar novel, but the first two are so clearly inspirations to deWitt on this one that you can’t ignore their influence.
The novel is subtitled “Notes for a Novel” and that’s a conceit used only somewhat loosely: the sense of ‘notes’ comes from sections beginning with “Discuss X” – which our unnamed narrator then does. This is the Palahniuk of it all, the repetition thing. You wake up at LAX, you wake up at JFK. Know what I mean? It’s somewhat loose but that’s become such a Palahniukian trait that I can’t help but notice it here.
The Ellis of it all comes from the sense of Hollywood depression that suffuses the piece. This bar is one of many across the world that might be thousands of miles apart but they all open onto the same dark part of the soul. The washed up actors and writers who work behind the bar, the sad and sodden regulars. Actually, that second part made me think of the last great bar novel I read (a better novel than this, although that’s not to say that this was a bad novel): Damascus by Josh Mohr. The characters in that novel, idiosyncratically named, have ended up sticking with me – in a way that these characters, all equally idiosyncratic but simply named, may not. Still, this bar and that bar seem to definitely exist in the same universe.
The characters are the most interesting part of this novel, I have to say, because there isn’t a whole lot in the way of plot. Our unnamed narrator starts off moderately good: he’s got a wife, he’s got a vague idea of wanting to have a future…, and then he goes downhill pretty quickly with the drinking and the drugs and the somewhat crazy impulse decisions. But it’s all about him and the people who are around him as this happens. Despite myself, I was commiserating with this sad-sack as he dealt with the rather shitty hand he’d been dealt. The child actor, Merlin, even his boss and the other bar staff… they’re all terrible people. They all have really serious problems and that’s sad but they’re all also kind of terrible and so you just can’t help but side with our narrator: they deserve what they get.
But the issue comes from the fact that, as our narrator slides down the slippery slope, we begin to think the same way about him. It’s complicated though because we like him. We don’t want him to fail but at the same time we feel like he deserves it. It’s a terribly complicated feeling and I’m thoroughly impressed by deWitt’s ability to create that paradox. His follow-up novel, The Sisters Brothers, showed similar abilities to handle paradoxical “liking the bad guy” situations but was too cartoony: this is the real deal.
My issue with the novel – and, let’s be real, it’s much more novella than novel – was the digression (if we want to call it that) where the narrator drives out to see the Grand Canyon. It’s a strange and somewhat less-fully-realized section of the novel, perhaps because the bartender is semi-detoxing and thus vaguely hallucinatory. It serves a purpose in that it gets our ‘hero’ out of his setting and sets up the big ending – but I felt like the actual ending was a little less powerful for the fact that he’d already escaped once. Although the last moment of the novel was SO EFFING BRILLIANT that I almost want to forgive the issues at the 2/3rds mark. This is the final paragraph:
Time passes and you shake your head. “Work will drive you crazy if you let it,” you say. You do not speak for a long time after this.
I mean, RIGHT?! It just sums up so much – and drives home the point of the novel, too. I don’t know, I can’t even really articulate it. It is a truth that doesn’t need to be spoken? It is a truth that feels too true? It’s spot on, no matter how you dice it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. For all of its brilliance, this feels too much like “early work”. It’s derivative of other authors’ work and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing all that original to come out of it to differentiate it from those predecessors. It’s also a bit too short while at the same time feeling a bit too long – it’s raw in that way. But the promise and the wit are there, for sure, and I see now where The Sisters Brothers came from. Between this and that, I’m in deWitt’s corner: I think he’s going to make a quirky name for himself if he hasn’t done so already.