Most heavy drinkers have developed their own set of coping strategies—hiding the keys, chewing aspirin before bed, facing the morning with a packet of Emergen-C dissolved in Gatorade (try it!). Chief among these strategies is learning to ignore the fact that behind the bar is a witness to every drunken moment: the bartender who sees everything you'd rather forget. The second-person narrator of Patrick deWitt's Ablutions is just such a witness, but even his harshest judgements about his regulars don't protect him from the one weakness they all share.

Much of Ablutions consists of snapshots of the bar where our nameless narrator works as a barback. The cast of regulars at this Hollywood bar are a "curious balance of classes particular to the parts of Hollywood devoid of klieg lights and make-believe," an assortment of crackheads, cokeheads, and aspiring actors who insinuate themselves into the fabric of the bar. As the book begins, the narrator affects a sort of removed, anthropological approach to his work: "Discuss Sam, the bar's principal cocaine dealer," he invites us. "Discuss the effects of the full moon on the weekend crowds."

This façade of clinical distance, though, soon begins to crack. Employees at this bar are allowed to match their customers drink for drink, and by the book's halfway point any delusions our narrator may have had about being fundamentally different than his addled clientele have become increasingly difficult to maintain: His wife leaves him, his health deteriorates, and even a well-intentioned effort to quit driving drunk comes to nothing. "It makes you sad that you can't keep a promise to yourself but you are of two minds on the matter," he observes of his own inability to stop drinking. "The minds are cleanly separated and functioning independently of each other. They are content with this arrangement and have no plans to alter it."

Ablutions has the visceral effect of pulling you into a world of degradation and tawdriness that you'd rather not acknowledge and certainly don't want to inhabit. And what's more, deWitt's unsparing writing is so clear and unfussy—and so punctuated with tiny, heartbreaking moments of grace—it becomes impossible to put the book down and abandon your narrator to face that world alone.