Clear the Bar

Portland author Patrick deWitt got his break through free drinks.

Before he made it to Portland, novelist Patrick deWitt tried to leave Los Angeles six times. Six times he swore he was bailing for good. Six times he was sucked back into the city's black hole.

The author, who broke through with 2011's The Sisters Brothers and is preparing a new novel, spent the nights of this interminable tenure working as a bar-back, writing in his spare time. Laboring in obscurity and inundated with scenes of loneliness and depravity, deWitt spun the bleakness of bar life into his first novel, Ablutions, a work he describes as semiautobiographical. He thought it was good, but had no idea how to pursue publication. 

Then one night a friend cruised into the bar with another guy in tow. Sitting in the living room of deWitt's North Portland apartment, surrounded by his vinyl collection and the flotsam of his son's toys, I listen to the tale of the night he got his break. 

"I knew this guy could help me," deWitt says, running a slender hand through his sandy blond hair. "So, I gave him a bunch of free drinks and got him very drunk. At the end of the night, I asked him if he would read my novel." He paused, his face a mask. "He was unhappy about this."

Turns out the guy in the bar was D.V. DeVincentis, the screenwriter behind High Fidelity.

This is how DeVincentis tells it: "I was sitting at a bar in Hollywood at around 3:30 or 4 am. Bars in L.A. close at 2, so it can be assumed that there was stupid shit going on and no one was supposed to be there. Some guy came up to me and asked me if I was me, which I confirmed. He told me he liked my writing, and that he was also a writer, and would I read something that he'd written. This guy was on the other side of the bar, so he held all the power in the setting. I told him, sure, I'd read it. He gave me a drink, I gave him my address and I forgot about it."

Some days later, DeVincentis received deWitt's manuscript in the mail. He was unhappy about this.

"Odds and experience said that this would be a terrible book," DeVincentis says. "This is because almost all books and scripts and audition tapes and demo tapes are terrible. The unique situation in which I'd received the manuscript made the prospects of it being any good even more hopeless than usual. I decided right there that I would take the manuscript directly to the recycling bin 20 yards away with the rest of the unsolicited contents of my mailbox and toss it, but that I'd be a real sport and read what I could of it along the path there."

By the time he got to the recycling bin, he was hooked. "I stood there reading for about 40 minutes, the manuscript laid out on top of the stinky recycling bin, before finally realizing that I should just take it inside and finish it."

DeVincentis' enthusiasm for Ablutions set in motion a series of events that would lead deWitt to his agent. In the meantime, deWitt finally broke free of L.A.'s gravity and wound up living on an island near Seattle, commuting three hours a day by boat to work a construction job. When he got word his book had finally sold, he went into shock.

"I got an email with a number that represented enough [money] for me to quit my day job, and I remember almost forcing a feeling," he says. "I remember walking out to tell my mom in the garden and wondering why I didn't feel better about it. It was a moment I'd imagined so many times that when it actually came to pass… it was anti-climactic."

Eager to get away from Seattle, deWitt used his advance to move his family to Portland and started work on what became The Sisters Brothers, a taut Western that would end up being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize (deWitt is Canadian) and subsequently finding its way onto The New York Times bestseller list. 

The Sisters Brothers relays the journey of Eli and Charlie Sisters, assassins in pursuit of an eccentric miner with a name so absurdly wonderful I snorted milk through my nose the first time I read it. Narrated by Eli, the novel has the crackle of omniscience. I offered this to deWitt.

"Eli is uncannily overinformed," he agreed. "It was hard to get to the point of knowing him, but then one day I knew him very well. Once you get to know these people, you just let them go and see what happens. It's like watching rats in a cage. You just comment on what they do rather than force them to do any one specific thing."

DeWitt claims he didn't set out to write a Western. 

"I read a Louis L'Amour book once, but I don't remember what it was about," he says. "When you're ignorant of a subject, you're relying 95 percent on imagination and instinct, and that's where we're happiest anyways. I understand the clichés and it was fun to address them, but it was also fun to make up a world that surely never existed." He raised his eyebrows. “I mean, it’s fiction writing. You’re just making shit up.” 

In a testimony to just how much he relied on imagination, deWitt described the comparative enthusiasm his father brought to researching the history of the gold rush.

"My father kept bringing me books about the gold rush and I didn't even open them," he says. "At one point, I was trying to figure out the location of [book character] Warm's cabin, and my dad got out all these maps. He's like, 'Well, it could've been here. Or maybe over here.' And I'm like, 'Can you please just put your finger on a spot so I can just get on with my fucking life, man!?'"

Readers are given virtually no background on the Sisters brothers, save that they are in the employ of a dark figure known as the Commodore. While traveling from Oregon City to San Francisco, they encounter characters and situations loosely modeled on the immediately recognizable templates of the pulp Western. Eli and Charlie bounce like flaming cannonballs from gunfights to campfire coffee, interacting with prostitutes, prospectors and prepubescent wagon train brats. Through their constant patter, deWitt channels to devastating effect the spirit of Charles Portis, whose True Grit sets the gold standard for the style of exceedingly mannered cowboy dialogue the brothers employ.

It is in the oscillations of Eli's disposition, between moments of gentleness and unbridled fits of pique, that the novel gains its deepest purchase. He is demure to the point of awkwardness with women, but goaded to anger can become an instrument of violence so profound that numerous reviewers have drawn parallels between the brothers' tale and the scorched work of Cormac McCarthy. 

In the wake of his success, deWitt has already begun work on a new book, roughly based on the European fables that he has been reading to his son.

"They're appealing to me because a lot of them are really perverse, negative and harsh, but often have an uplifting message as well," he says. "They're very straightforward, and they contain a lot of elements of the supernatural."

After an hour, having long since drained the complimentary mug of tap water deWitt provided me with, I began gathering my things. Before leaving, I asked if he was connected with any Portland writers. He'd apparently gone out with Willy Vlautin for drinks just a couple nights before.

"I was sitting there drinking with him and a couple other writers, and I thought, 'I need to get out more,'" he says. "The problem is, when I go out I tend to drink, and then I can’t write the next day.” 

GO: Patrick deWitt will read at Mississippi Records, 5202 N Albina Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 12, with Jon Raymond and Vanessa Veselka. 8 pm. Free.

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