on February 12, 2012
[This book review originally ran at The Nervous Breakdown.]
As usual, Amazon wants to sensor my reviews. Why publish the books if I can't talk about them?
Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the ****-*** queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.
The competing story lines offer up several different characters to follow. One of the ways that Mohr grounds this story, however, is by repeating a chorus of what's happening in the real world, beyond the closed door, dark room, and blackouts of the seedy bar, Damascus. Take this example:
"There were other things happening in the world, of course...Three more American soldiers were killed in Iraq; five in Afghanistan. There were severe floods in the Tabasco and Chiapas regions of Mexico, killing about 3,000, though that was a conservative estimate. Iran reiterated that it was cultivating a nuclear program solely for energy production."
These moments that break with the narrative allow us to not only ground the novel in the reality of the time and place that was 2003, but to show that despite the enormity of the lives that are fracturing at Damascus, the world is still spinning, and there is more to life than one little bar full of problems. Mohr says essentially that, later in the novel:
"And there were other things happening in the world, of course, because our lives all spin on the same spit. Seconds and heartbeats don't stop until the clockwork breaks and the arteries dam."
But most of the time, we are trapped at Damascus, wallowing in the lives of the broken men and women that inhabit the dive bar. One of the ways that Mohr makes this story come to life is in the gritty depictions of his main characters. Take this introductory description of No Eyebrows from the first chapter of the book:
"Owen placed the huge shot down on the bar, and as No Eyebrows reached for it with a shaking hand, Shambles looked at his sallow skin, the way it clung to him like a layer of film on cold chicken broth. Most people were shocked by his appearance because he reinforced the fact that everyone was going to die. People pursed their lips and averted their eyes, shaming him into near invisibility with the verve of their avoidances, trying not to ogle the prowling dead."
This is a brutal and honest illustration of No Eyebrows. But Mohr doesn't stop there. Shambles makes her living ******* *** men in the bathroom, earning forty dollars a pop. She's no beauty queen either. Reminiscent of Charles Bukowksi and Barfly, here is a quick sketch of Shambles:
"There were a few female regulars, and one who haunted the place was Shambles. She had acne scars all over her cragged cheeks, pocked like the mirror-shards glued to the bar's ceiling. Skin crimped. Her hair had been bleached too many times: tips brittle, broken, crooked. Frayed bangs that fell down to her eyebrows and pointed a million directions like tassels. Her eyes used to be blue, but they'd faded to matte gray."
At least we know what we're getting ourselves into with this story. The punches won't be pulled. We're given a sober description of the men and women of this run down drinking hole.
While the storyline about the politics of Syl's art show, and Owen's desire to make something of his life are interesting, the most compelling thread, in my opinion, is the relationship between Shambles and No Eyebrows. At first, No Eyebrows just wants to be touched, the disease eating away at him, forcing him to leave his wife and daughter so they don't have to watch him wither away to nothing. Take this scene, the first time that Shambles ***** *** No Eyebrows, in the bar's tiny, run down bathroom in the back:
"`Do you like that?' she said, and he said, `Don't stop touching me," and someone knocked on the door again and No Eyebrows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure, this was the first hand on him in months that didn't belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he ****, gasping for air and life and hope."
At first, the **** **** that happen in the back of the bar are just further depressing examples of how low Shambles has sunk. This is what her life has been reduced to--getting drunk in some crappy bar in San Francisco's Mission District, making forty bucks at a time pleasuring lonely, ugly men. But as the story develops, we see that she wants more than that, and she starts to care for No Eyebrows, to have feelings for him. And that can only complicate things--how do you start a relationship with a man that you met performing *** ***** in the back of a bar? And how does Shambles get over her own fears and insecurities?
This novel is not without humor though. The characters of Mohr's narrative often laugh at themselves and the situations they have to endure in order to survive. Take this exchange between Maya, Shambles and Karla, three of the bar's ladies of the night:
"`I hate it when men try to be charming,' Maya said. `Nothing weirder than getting a guy out of the bar and he turns into a philosopher.'
`That's why I keep them in Damascus's bathroom,' Shambles said. `No time to recite Shakespeare while my hand's in their business.'
Karla snapped into the flow of the conversation: `I once took a guy home and while he **** he shouted, "It was a dark and stormy night!"'
`What did you do?'
`What could I do? He's a meteorologist.'"
BADUM-BUM. Scattered throughout the novel there are bad jokes, and there are good jokes, but either way, they break up the tone and give the reader a moment to relax and take a breath, to understand that even in the depth of certain misery, these people often had a good time.
For a long time our world is only Damascus. But towards the end of the novel, when No Eyebrows goes home, we finally get his name, David, and the humanity of his need to be loved, his desire to leave and spare his family the pain of watching him die--it all slams back into focus, in a remarkably touching way. When we see Shambles meet up with her ex-husband in the final pages, and discover that she has a name too, Irene, we see that she is not done fighting, still trying to reach out and find a reason to keep on living, not just surviving. And these moments are rather fulfilling.
In Damascus, Joshua Mohr paints a picture that is thankfully not a romantic, nostalgic telling of what life is like as a barfly, sleeping on pool tables, waking up with illegible tattoos, lives and homes fractured, destroyed in the aftermath of selfish, ignorant behavior. He tells it how it is, in simple, graphic, raw words that leave no room for misinterpretation. If nothing else, you'll emerge from Damascus thanking the stars that twinkle in broken shards of glass suspended over your head, that this is not your life.
on November 7, 2011
Joshua Mohr's third novel, Damascus, completes the trilogy of novels that includes his first two, the nationally recognized debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, and Termite Parade, a New York Times Book Review Editors Choice. Like his previous work, Damascus showcases the pathological self destructiveness of several odd-ball characters populating the Mission District of San Francisco and frequenting the eponymous bar. These characters hurtle toward a personal apocalypse, desperately trying to steer themselves into a stable orbit around a healthy life. Whereas Mohr's previous novels read almost as case studies of two or three characters, Damascus widens the camera shot to conclude a larger cast, sometimes soaring into the atmosphere to observe global events before diving back to the surface and perching on a wino's shoulder. Mohr's talents are not simply in his darkly humorous portraits of drowning people, but in articulating the nuances of their neurosis, the accumulating rationalities, prejudices, and habits that make his characters both relatable and terrifying. Damascus places the reader in the mind of a ruined woman giving a hand job to a half dead, hairless cancer patient in a dive bar bathroom. But instead of repelling us with this redolent example of a disfigured life, Mohr's vigorous compassion draws us deep into the scene to a point where we see ourselves under the muck and grime.
And the book is funny. Mohr has a sometimes dry and dark, sometimes goofy humor. Next to a scene where someone drinks them-self into a stupor, Mohr explores the sexual frustrations of a woman whose lover thinks she looks like Harry Potter at the moment of coitus. Damascus is arguably the funniest of his novels, and by virtue of the fact that the novel ends at an open mic night for aspiring comedians, we can assume this is deliberate. Mohr ends his trilogy with a desire for levity, which in part makes Damascus the most hopeful of his novels. Like a merciful God, Mohr displays the ridiculous about his characters alongside the ugly, gives them myriad opportunities to redeem themselves, and then refuses to judge them or their choices. Reading his work is an exercise in compassion and a prayer dedicated to hope.
on November 14, 2011
Having read both of Joshua Mohr's first two novels, Some Things that Meant the World to Me, and Termite Parade, I was eager to throw his newest book, Damascus, into my reading rotation. Now, before I get too weighted down and mired in baseball parallels, I've got to say, that if I was faced with trying to win a three game series in the playoffs, Mohr would be on the pitcher's mound for one of those games: why you ask, because, he's a young writer whose got style, he's got an arsenal when it comes to pounding out prose, and he can throw one hell of a curve ball. That said, what I loved about this book is how redemptive I felt after turning the final pages, the plot building and winding, given to us in short structured bursts, the pieces of plot falling into place to create a somewhat seedy little puzzle. But, what I loved even more about this book was how much I laughed along the way. Mohr's third book is again set within the grimy pigeon filled streets of San Francisco's Mission District, and as with his first two novels, he is able to churn out uniquely realized and sometimes unconventional characters that feel like real people you'd find in the darkened corners of a bar near you. Damascus is a book that delves into the saddened lives of people who seem to want to do better, people who sometimes need to put on a costume in order to navigate a heavily soiled world, but in the end are people just the same.
on December 29, 2011
This is my first Joshua Mohr novel. And I can appreciate why the reviews thus far are so positive.
However, I did not get into the novel as quickly as I do with most, maybe because of the unusual nature of the setting, a dingy bar in the Mission section of San Francisco, owned and operated by Santa-Claus-outfitted Owen, a man in his early sixties whose entire life is spent tending bar to a bunch of drunks, some of whom are never given actual names, i.e., No Eyebrows, the guy dying of cancer who has left his wife and daughter.
This is a novel with a relatively small cast, at least for most of the novel. Owen has a lesbian neice who has a straight friend, Syl, an artist whose portraits will be exhibited in the bar--Damascus. These are of Iraq war victims, a portest art exhibit that will have some very unintended consequences which I will not detail since it would spoil the reading.
Owen is the type of guy who quite simply cannot foresee problems, a man who trusts too much in life, a very pathetic one.
I sense I should find something symbol about the name of the bar, but I don't. The novel was written before the Syrian uprising. But maybe there is something there, i.e., a contemporary Paul finding insights on the way to Damascus except they are not insights at all? Oh, well, I gave it a try.
on November 26, 2011
You gotta love a book that opens with a $40 handjob in the dank toilet of a run-down dive bar and manages to make the scene funny and moving and yes, redemptive. "Damascus" is the work of a writer in love with his characters, a big-hearted novel that, as in this opening scene, finds redemption in dark and seedy places. Set in and around a San Francisco Mission district bar, "Damascus" would seem to invite comparison to a whole host of abject drunkard/junkie suffer-fests, but Joshua Mohr's heightened prose, sense of humor, and generous feelings--toward his characters and towards the reader--make this something quite different...it's a really enjoyable, even fun, read, with a lot of emotional heft. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Mohr really knows how to crank up the tension--there's a page-turner quality to this book--or that he has a cut-up's knack for goofy zingers, or that he really digs around deeply into his hangdog characters (the relationship between a runaway dying man and his abandoned wife felt particularly moving and honest to me). If you like Mohr's other books--I've read "Some Things That Meant the World to Me," which I loved--you're really going to dig "Damascus"; if you've never read Mohr, this is probably the perfect place to start.