Set in a dive bar, Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Damascus follows a weird gang as their lives crumble. Somehow it’s still life-affirming.
So much of our lives disappear. The small things like flakes of skin, the funny lines we’ve said, our “profound” drunken ramblings, kisses, breaths – where do they go? Lost, it seems forever. That’s until someone like Joshua Mohr comes along to sweep the streets of our days. In his third novel, Damascus, Mohr acts as part author, part alcoholic anthropologist, combing the hidden places to gather all that we’ve left behind.
He picks up the fragments of our lives and ferrets out our true desires.
Set in a dive bar aptly named Damascus (etymology: “a well-watered place”) the story revolves around a motley crew. There’s Owen, the owner of Damascus, whose life is summed up by his unfortunate Hilter-mustache birthmark. He’s got a well-meaning lesbian poet niece, Daphne, her best friend, rebel-artist Syl, and what would a bar be without its cast of regular drunks? There’s Shambles, a part-time prostitute, No Eyebrows, a stage-four cancer patient who ran away from his wife and daughter, and Byron Settles, an unsettled veteran back from Iraq. As we all know, a book set in a dive bar can’t end well, and from the get-go we’re aware this tale will end in tears. When you put cancer, Iraq, alcoholism and self-loathing together and shake, everyone knows that cocktail is called a suicide, and it’s served on the rocks. Somehow, though, Mohr manages to make that drink taste life-affirming.
There’s two main narrative threads; the first is a pro-protest story that revolves around Syl’s art show at Damascus in which she hangs twelve paintings of dead soldiers, and then during a live performance nails live fish to the paintings, letting them wriggle until they die. The brouhaha over the art show spirals out of control when a group of war veterans, fueled by Byron Settles, bring their own interpretation to the artwork, along with some tear gas. Mohr makes a political statement by asking, what are the consequences of saying nothing? What is worse – to speak out or to cower in silence? Both options, as we see elucidated in the pages of the book, have their price.
The other, more powerful thread, is the love story between Shambles and No Eyebrows. Both estranged from love, they find one another behind the pretense of peppermint schnapps and prostitution, and it’s one of the most sincere human exchanges I’ve read in a while. They build a relationship that investigates the spaces in which they’ve been hiding from the world. There’s a breathtaking scene in a cab that is a deftly rendered metaphor for the difficult stages of early love. Inside the taxi, No Eyebrows begs Shambles to spend the night with him (an exception she makes for no one). He’s on his deathbed, and she’s debating whether or not to go through with it. “Shambles drew a curlicue on the glass, a claustrophobic shape closing in on itself…Her finger reached the center of the curlicue. Trapped. She pulled it off the glass at the center of the shape because there was nowhere else to go. He wasn’t asking her to sleep in his bed. He was asking for a miracle.” Their conversation is stunted with silence until the cab driver interrupts them, “We’ll have to go back the way we came.” And back the way we came is where we go, as Damascus trudges through the characters’ pasts, attempting to make sense of their mistakes.
Their love story is so moving in part because you expect so little between two people with nothing left to live for. Yet there’s so much tenderness between the ravaged duo. In a painfully sweet moment, Shambles says to No Eyebrows, “I like the way your hands shake….I love the portacath in your shoulder. It’s the secret way into you….” There is no greater achievement than being able to locate the sacred in the profane, to raise the light out of the dark, to find the sage in the alcoholic. As Mohr makes sense of our illogical drunken ramblings, he also finds the human element in characters most often overlooked. We’re used to keeping our waywards inside. What happens when they stand in the light?
Throughout Damascus, Mohr uses the power of fictive omniscience in its most glorious role. While often times the authorial stance of omniscience creates a sense of remove and is taken for granted by authors, Mohr employs it to bring us closer to people, to rest our ears against the tick-tick of their hearts. He treats the characters as though they’re real and cautiously reveals their innermost secrets.
On top of the hefty dose of empathy, Damascus is a page-turner. Mohr’s got an inherent ability to spin a yarn; it’s as if he’s standing over your shoulder lighting each page with a match as you read. Not to mention the book is funny, despite the heightened, depressing state of affairs. As the book aptly notes, “Humor was weird like that, triggered in all kinds of tactless ways.”
One of the book’s only faults is akin to the decision of whether or not to have that next drink. Mohr makes the mistake of getting too word-drunk, and at times the writing borders on prolix. But after all, the book is set in a dive bar, which makes me prone to forgive Mohr for his occasional excess. When an author has been so generous with their characters, so unflinching in allowing them to be human, as a reader, the least I can do is buy the next round.
Ultimately the book is about sacrifice, about the price of things. It’s about what happens when we leave our partners and try to come home like stray dogs; when we give up our dignity and threaten to burn someone alive; when we try to take a stand against war. As the reckless veteran Sam in Mohr’s novel says, “Most of life is no-win situations, kid.” Yet in the midst of not winning, we can claim our small victories. We can redeem ourselves and sober up for a moment enough to tell someone we love them.
In the end we disappear too, but if we’re lucky, someone has been gathering all of the things strewn behind us. Damascus is a scrapbook of all the things from our lives we worried would get lost in the wind.
And for the artists out there, the ones of us who are afraid and hiding, shy of ever finishing our own books, Mohr has a love letter for us too: “The show must go on, folks, so it might as well go on with you. It ain’t as easy as it looks, that I can guarantee, but trust me on this: it’s better to be heckled than be invisible, better to spin the wheel and play the game than watch from the sidelines. So carpe diem and all that other rah-rah shit…..any courageous souls out there want to get up and give it a shot?”
I can drink to that.
Read the Rumpus Interview with Joshua Mohr here!