Joshua Mohr’s second novel returns to the seedy side of San Francisco, where the addicted and the lost search for redemption.
While reading Joshua Mohr’s second novel, Termite Parade, I kept thinking—for reasons that are now apparent to me—of a scene from the film version of The African Queen in which missionary Rose Sayer, played by Katherine Hepburn, admonishes the hard-living Charlie Allnut for his amoral, gin-drinking ways. By way of explanation, Allnut, played by Humphrey Bogart, says matter-of-factly that his behavior is “only human nature.” Hepburn counters, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in the world to rise above.” Soon after, in the wilds of East Africa, Hepburn goes slumming, and she and Bogey use their boat to score a small victory for the Allies.
Although no Germans are defeated in Mohr’s fiction, there are destructive natures to overcome and plenty of drinking and sordid behavior to compensate for the absence of military heroics. His first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, was nothing if not a well-told tale of redemption with chimerical elements. In that strange tale, the primary wayward boozer—a man who had named himself Rhonda—suffered from the mental affliction depersonalization, and his bizarre fantasy world included a child named Little Rhonda who led the protagonist through the bottom of a Dumpster to a place that offered insight into painful childhood memories. Like many readers, I’d have little patience for a novel in which the real-world action consists solely of sodden misanthropes mining personal failure for an elusive shot at… something. But Some Things was more than that. It also didn’t hurt that Little Rhonda was an entertaining, comical character and that Mohr’s energetic, almost frenetic prose grabbed readers by the shirt and didn’t let go—as it does once again in Termite Parade.
Mohr works a similarly vulgar milieu here, with reprobate characters who aspire to abandon their animalism—present-day Bukowskis with heart—although this time around his explorations of decency, guilt, and redemption are a soberer take. The novel features three main characters: Derek, a San Francisco auto mechanic—self-aware, abuser of alcohol, willing but unable to change; Mired, Derek’s drunken and conflicted girlfriend, who describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eyeore”; and Frank, Derek’s twin brother, an equally-damaged provocateur and aspiring avant-garde filmmaker who has settled reluctantly into a career making corporate videos. The story centers on a violent incident between Derek and Mired, which Mired, the blacked-out victim, barely recalls, though Frank knows the grisly truth about Derek’s actions. Derek’s conscience, Mired’s hazy memories, and Frank’s threat to reveal the facts propel the action, as Mohr rotates the point of view to tell the story in alternating chapters of first-person narration.
Frank’s plan for personal artistic glory hinges on “The Unveiled Animal,” a new kind of cinema that he says must evolve beyond “actors, scripts, contrived scenes and happy endings” to achieve “a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries.” In other words, Frank, a grown-up still speaking the language of a second-year film student, wants to create what seems to be an offshoot of cinéma vérité, or perhaps reality television. Eventually, his Unveiled Animal project dovetails with Derek and Mired’s tawdry conflict, just as Derek, returning from a brief escape to Reno, confesses his sins to his beloved. Mohr stages this important scene as a spectacle, an absurdity; if I were to recount the action—and I don’t want to give it away—my description might seem ludicrous. And yet the scene succeeds, reinforcing the impression of Mohr as a writer who keeps readers engaged and entertained, delivering what they might doubt, mid-story, is possible.
Still, Termite Parade’s occasional flaws are not insignificant: scenes that skirt dangerously close to the mawkish, a build-up to Derek’s penultimate confession that seems repetitive at times, sentimental attempts to elicit empathy for the characters. Mohr clearly hopes readers will root for them to become better people—even the reprehensible Derek, who near the end of the novel begrudgingly accepts Frank’s brainless theory that “there’s only one kind of person,” while trying to convince Mired that we’re just animals after all (echoing Charlie Allnut in The African Queen). But Mired will have none of it. “Derek was wrong and so was his deranged brother, who I was nothing like,” she tells the reader. “We weren’t all the same, weren’t animals. We were humans and we could learn. We could figure things out, if you gave us enough time.”