'The Dishwasher' is loud, energetic and absorbing

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 5:12pm

The French-Canadian author Stéphane Larue has worked in the restaurant industry for most of his adult life — he’s now the part-owner of a bar in Montreal. In an interview, he described the progress of his career in the kitchen: “Dishwasher, kitchen helper. Then into the dining room: busboy, waiter, maitre-d’, manager.” Later in the same interview he comments that “the dishwasher sees everything, like a fly on the wall.” 

This easy familiarity with the lives of kitchen workers is clear in the pages of Larue’s debut novel, “The Dishwasher,” which was recently translated into English by Pablo Strauss. His novel places us in the teeming underside of nightlife in Montreal, peopled with the restaurant workers, bartenders and bussers that make it possible. His unnamed protagonist enters this world mostly out of desperation: after months of succumbing to his gambling addiction, he has exhausted his savings and the patience of his friends — Larue based his writing about gambling addiction on his own experiences, and so he depicts it with bracing intimacy. His exasperated cousin Malik loans him eighty dollars and gives him a lead on a job at a high-end restaurant, work that proves both punishing and rewarding, and begins, slowly and haltingly, to lift him from his initial pathetic condition.  

Larue writes in an unusually direct, immersive way, generally avoiding expository writing. He instead prefers to describe more or less every moment of his protagonist’s life for the first few weeks at his job. Nothing is skipped or bypassed; we nearly get to the level of seeing every dropped dish and scrubbed pan. His style feels exhaustive: each detail needs to be explained, itemized and followed to conclusions. This is especially apparent in the extended scenes of kitchen work early on in the book. To pick an example at random: 

“From that moment on I tried desperately to keep up as Bébert listed off the thousand-and-one things I had to do. He tossed ten bags of spinach onto the stainless prep counter. My job was to pull off the stems and throw out any rotten bits. He came back out of the walk-in with two waxed cardboard boxes which he threw at the foot of the sink. I was to pick out twenty heads of romaine, and forty heads of leaf lettuce, pull off the leaves, wash them in ice-cold water, then dry them in an unwieldy salad spinner that I had to hold against my body as I turned.” 

It continues in this fashion for nearly fifteen pages. This description is both utilitarian (forty heads of leaf lettuce versus twenty heads of romaine, don’t make a mistake) and physical, sensory (“ice-cold” water, the salad spinner that has to be embraced). Larue seems intent on putting the reader into the head of his protagonist, making the reader inhabit the stress of the kitchen. This style is definitely an acquired taste. The plot is so tightly wound, so furiously coupled to the materials of existence, that it is both invigorating and exhausting to read. The intensity and detail of Larue’s writing feels appropriate for what he’s trying to convey about his subject, and it works well in bringing his world to life. 

Rhythms start to emerge from this dense texture. The restaurant workers do grueling, difficult, fast-paced work night after night and then usually go to an after-hours bar to exhaust the remainder of their energy. The scenes in dimly lit dives are hazy and confusing, largely taken up by the protagonist struggling to understand what’s going on while eyeing the video lottery machines in the corner. These wild nights out become basically another method for the protagonist to distract himself from the thought of gambling, one that only sometimes works. He never really becomes a hero, and no one thing can necessarily keep him away from his vice. We instead get the sense of someone buffeted around by forces largely outside of his control, remaining at the mercy of his own desires and fixations.

To that end, Larue has a certain attention toward the surrender and decreation inherent in this lifestyle. The life of a restaurant worker starts to feel centrifugal and self-similar — hedonism erases frantic industriousness and vice versa. Work and play share a potential for dissociation, for a kind of destructive flow. The point is driven home by the protagonist’s taste in music — there’s a depiction of a metal concert that feels representative of the relationality that this book pursues. “She jumped into the melee, climbed over the swirl of bodies smashing into each other, then let herself be swept along by the crowd, tumbling over the human sea all the way to the foot of the stage.” Gambling feels like this, too: the narrator describes the “electric shocks” he feels when he’s tempted to relapse and the “euphoria” of winning. The protagonist thrives on momentum, and by the end of the book you can tell that he’s well-suited for the restaurant industry mostly because he needs to feel that “euphoria” in one way or another. 

As you might expect, Larue neither denigrates or romanticizes this life. The cooks and dishwashers have embarrassing, unromantic ailments: bad backs, limps, eczema, rosacea. They sweat over hot stoves, they cut themselves badly, they are too exhausted or hungover to function correctly. One can clearly see how burnout works in this world, how easy it would be to suddenly find oneself too spent to continue. There are moments, however fleeting, of solidarity — at one point the sous-chef looks at the protagonist after a particularly difficult moment “as if he had all the time in the world,” and there’s another moment where the protagonist’s coworkers fend off an assailant in a bar.

The novel is generous to its subject and on balance ends up feeling compassionate underneath the intensity of its surfaces. It never feels like Larue wants to condemn or exalt any aspect of this world, instead seeking synthesis — resilience becomes the desperate material of life rather than a palliative; hope and struggle feed off each other.