I avoided Joshua Mohr’s novel Termite Parade because I’d read a blurb that said one of its characters’ bodies was infested with termites, an image reinforced by the cover of the book, which depicts a man with termites ravaging his gums. This avoidance came with some regret. The author and I are both West Coast novelists–a group I like to support–and we’re both graduates of the University of San Francisco’s graduate writing program (go, Dons). Moreover, Termite Parade was released by the indie press Two Dollar Radio, an outfit I’d been curious about for a while. Still, I don’t need gum-eating termites swimming around in my head when I’m trying to go to sleep.
You can imagine my relief when I came upon Damascus, Mohr’s more deceptively unconventional third novel and his second on Two Dollar Radio. The novel’s Ground Zero is a bar named Damascus in San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Mission district. Set during the Iraq War, the principle drama centers around an art show/protest put on at the bar that involves nailing live fish to paintings of perished American soldiers. (Hey, at least the cover looked conventional.) The cultural divide that was exacerbated in our country during this time is played out in the microcosm of Damascus, pro-war and anti-war each coming there to head off the other.
Mohr is skilled at making his characters memorable with one distinguishing characteristic. Damascus’s owner, Owen, has a birthmark in the lip area that makes him look like Adolf Hitler; Owen’s niece Daphne is a lesbian who sleeps around; Shambles is a prostitute who specializes in hand jobs; No Eyebrows, dying of cancer, has–you guessed it–no eyebrows. At the point we come across the scientist with itchy skin, I was a little tired of this hiccup, but it does keep Mohr’s characters away from a far worse fallacy: we can easily distinguish one from another.
It’s Mohr’s deft use of language that separates his prose from the pack and brings his characters to life. Of Shambles, the hand job expert, he writes, “The night was young and full of fisted opportunities.” No Eyebrows’s cancer is described as “tumors stuck to his lungs like poisonous barnacles.” When Owen, who takes to wearing a Santa Claus suit year round (the beard covering his Hilter birthmark), is questioned about his attire, he quips, “I’m known for my perversions around the North Pole. Never leave me alone with a reindeer.” Mohr knows how to bring a character into relief quickly, and with a flare for humor and trope.
And Mohr utilizes his characters’ quirks to convincingly unfold the drama in Damascus. Byron Settles, an Iraq War veteran who was honorably discharged after injuring his leg, gets the tension rolling by overcompensating for his–to his mind–shameful failures during wartime. Here are his thoughts when he first views the offending exhibit:
She’d turned veterans into an art project. Ripped them from the context of being heroes. She wasn’t allowed to rape their memory. Hell, no. He wouldn’t let them get turned into advertisements, some bullshit propaganda…
Maybe this was his Honorable part of his discharge. Maybe he was supposed to confront dishonor. Maybe his landing zone was here—behind enemy lines he hadn’t even known about.
Seeing plot and character converge so seamlessly is a rare treat in contemporary fiction, where “masterworks” often seem dashed off too quickly to really explore a character’s integral relationship to the story.
There’s all this great plot and character development, and then there’s the stink.
It’s not hard to imagine the smell of a month-long art exhibition that incorporates the nailing live fish to paintings. I found myself a little too focused on the stench throughout, even during the scenes that aren’t set in Damascus. The smell isn’t even a factor for three-fourths of the novel–when the first real shots of the culture war are fired–but I was worried about it much sooner than that, and it kept pulling me out of the drama. No doubt this is intentional by the author–as Revv, a bartender at Damascus, says, “Art should stir shit”–but I admit it made me sad that Mohr needs such a pungent element to make his work cut through, that his well-tuned story and finely wrought prose–and splendid ending–aren’t loud enough on their own. If that’s what it takes for Damascus to be heard above the din, then we may have a entirely different culture war on our hands.
About the reviewer:
ART EDWARDS’s third novel, Badge (unpublished), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011 in the Mainstream category. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, is being made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers’ Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at The Collagist, elimae, PANK, JMWW, The Rumpus, Girls with Insurance and writersdojo.org.