“What Joshua Mohr is doing has more in common with Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and Haruki Murakami, all great chroniclers of the fantastic. He’s interested in something weirder than mere sex, drugs, and degradation.”
American literature of the dispossessed, of the debased and desperate, unwashed and masochistic—gutter fiction, let’s call it, or grit lit, maybe—has become, at this late date, a trustworthy genre. The tropes of the form are all familiar now: misunderstood loners, massive doses of drugs and alcohol, equally massive doses of shame and rage, monochrome cities filled with dark rooms in which unspeakable acts occur on a daily basis, haunting childhood scars that won’t stop itching, a cruel cruel world where redemption is fleeting and, as often as not, mistaken for further humiliation.
At their best, these books propose an alternate America, a kind of tonic to the suburban middle class ideal, one where economic and spiritual poverty are endemic, ruthlessness is the norm, and everyone is a provisional survivor; the stories hit you like a tsunami of blood gushing straight out of the open vein of our culture. At their worst, they can track familiar twelve-step narratives through self-loathing to self-pity and on toward salvation.
In his first novel, Some Things that Meant the World to Me, Joshua Mohr announces his intention to work this territory before the first sentence. Two words in the epigraph—”Tom Waits”—are all it takes to know what kind of world we’re headed into. But this isn’t to say that the book is bad—it’s very good, actually, in part because it’s self-conscious about its relationship to its predecessors.
So, we have the lost man-child, Rhonda, he’s called, blinking the days away in a drunken haze. In the first chapter, he saves a hooker’s life. By the third, he’s passed out and pissed in her bed. (The dark goings on here are played for rueful laughs.) By the fifth, he’s wandering around San Francisco’s Mission District with a scrawny kid in a miner’s helmet who turns out to be him, Rhonda, too, and who spends much of the novel bossing him around. Little Rhonda tells big Rhonda to climb into a dumpster and dig through the trash, open the trapdoor at the bottom, and dive down into the earth. And that’s exactly what big Rhonda does.
What? Huh? We’re not in the land of the real any more, Dorothy.
In alternating chapters, Rhonda reminisces on various morbid scenes from his childhood in Phoenix. The time his mother ran off for a drink and didn’t come back for two weeks. The other time she did this. And that other time. The time their tract house expanded until it was miles wide, wide enough for him to hide from his mother’s boyfriend, Letch. The times the snakes protected him—and the times they didn’t. The time he spiked Letch’s Bloody Mary with antifreeze—that’s a big one.
What Rhonda finds beneath the dumpster is a glass-bottomed box through which he can watch his mother’s hapless attempts to protect and love him and his own equally hapless attempts to do the same for her. Then he resurfaces into the grimy San Francisco streets, dislocated, not so much by the surreality of his situation as by the realization that there might be something redeemable about him.
As Some Things progresses, we follow Rhonda’s tragicomic attempts to make good on this realization. The plot jolts forward in fits and starts, more a picaresque than a straightforward narrative. We meet Handa, the girl Rhonda has a humiliating crush on. We meet Vern, the old drunk Rhonda pals around with, who teaches him how to make a prison wine called pruno and longs to do him physical harm. We meet yet another Rhonda—our protagonist’s Wheel of Fortune-obsessed elderly neighbor, who cares about him more than he cares about himself.
Through it all, we watch Rhonda’s symbolic world creep outward and enshroud everything he touches. The snakes, the expanding house, the trap door in the dumpster—eventually these things become indistinguishable from the real world. When this occurs, Rhonda’s reality becomes untenable. He must return to Phoenix to purge himself of the root causes of these symbols.
In some ways, this book is in argument with itself. There’s a conflict here between the real and the surreal. Mohr periodically inserts chapters in which Rhonda sits in front of a psychiatrist discussing (or not) his diagnosis of “depersonalization.” Which is all fine and good, if the goal is to explain the presence of the impossible within the dictates of standard realism. Why bother, though, when you’ve landed on something more interesting and ambitious outside those conventions?
This finally is the achievement of Mohr’s novel: Rhonda’s pantheon of touchstones is culled from the mundane detritus of our contemporary American landscape. As the book progresses, these touchstones accumulate not only symbolic, but also narrative weight. They flex and bend. They act. And we, as readers, learn to trust the underlying logic of their action. In this way, the altered reality of Rhonda’s perceptions comes across as true and meaningful.
What Mohr’s doing might look, on the surface, like another contribution to the mass of gutter fiction already extant, but Some Things that Meant the World to Me actually has more in common with Kafka and Lewis Carroll and Haruki Murakami, all great chroniclers of the fantastic. Instead of attempting to shock and dislocate us with the moral vacuity of his milieu, Mohr relies on our familiarity with it, our sentimental attachment to such squalor, to ground us in the safety of the known. Having done so, he can take us into the fantastic without worrying about losing us along the way. He’s interested in something weirder and less overplayed than mere sex, drugs, and degradation—what he creates is a symbolist world that, once broken, stays that way, just like the people in it, but there’s a hope here, too, that these people might be able to recognize and cherish the broken reality all around and inside them.