Fight Song, Joshua Mohr’s fourth novel, is a suburban picaresque about a character cursed with a name that highlights his own mediocrity and the futility of his efforts: Bob Coffen. In line with the schlubby antiheroes of Sam Lipstye and Gary Shteyngart’s novels, Bob is set in his ways; he is self-loathing but also unable to envision himself as anything but “another half-drunken, lonely, sad, suburban father.”
When his boss at Dumper Games presents him with a plock—a combination clock and plaque—thanking Robert Coffen for ten years of service, Bob corrects him, explaining, “I’m only Bob. On my birth certificate, it reads ‘Bob Coffen.’” Exasperated, his boss responds,“Nobody’s name is just Bob,” to which Bob answers, “Bob is me.” Later, confused by the nicknames that other characters seem to force upon him, Bob repeats “I am Bob,” and uses “Bob is me” as an explanation when asked how he has managed to screw up his life so magnificently. And yet despite Bob’s stubbornness, the question at the heart of Fight Song is one of identity and reinvention: what can we do when we realize we have lost the passions that once defined us?
Mohr creates a world of hyperboles and absurdities with grandiose characters who each have their own far-flung delusions. Bob’s wife is competing to break the world record for treading water, and his neighbor and nemesis Schumann is characterized as a “douche of such a pungently competitive variety that he carries a picture of himself wearing his college football uniform in his wallet. And shows it to people.” After Bob catches a fast food server running a sex line from her intercom, she grandly offers him three free Mexican lasagnas, saying “Capitán, I’d like to apologize…This is an injustice and on behalf of Taco Shed, I’d like to prepare you a complimentary gourmet meal.” All of Mohr’s characters speak with this heightened language, aware of their part in something greater than themselves, something greater even than Bob Coffen. If Bob is a suburban Quixote, the cast of Fight Song is complicit in his delusions.
Bob’s story begins when he is biking home from work, and Schumann challenges him to race his SUV. When Schumann pushes Bob off the road and into an oleander bush, Bob goes to Schumann’s house to get revenge in the form of a smashed flowerpot. With a chilly wife and two dismissive children who prefer their iPads to human interaction, it is in this act of agency and aggression that Bob finds glory. He stands outside the Schumann home, listening to his enemy play the Purdue fight song on the bagpipes, and for a moment, “It’s only Bob, inside the fight song, finding solace in the idea he can stand up for himself.” But this confidence fades quickly, as Bob collapses from his injuries and wakes to Schumann’s wife standing over him, checking to see if he is breathing.
Schumann takes an interest in Bob, who he admires as a “possessed warrior” and “In the zone,” after Bob’s act of retaliation. While it’s tempting to characterize Fight Song as the story of a frustrated suburban man who suddenly takes charge of his stagnant existence, it is Schumann who is the real agent of change for most of the novel. Even in his own narrative, Bob is often relegated to the role of Sancho Panza. It is Schumann who kidnaps Björn the Bereft, the magician and marriage counselor who makes elaborate marital metaphors a reality when he turns the floor of a conference hall into literal thin ice. Schumann seduces the dirty talking waitress whom Bob befriends, and wrestles with his own fading glory, speaking in overblown sports metaphors and renaming himself Reasons with His Fists. Of course, without Schumann’s eccentricities, Bob would not be able to fashion for himself his own way of reckoning with the person he has become.
Fight Song relies on the cultural tropes of 21st century suburban malaise and frustration, and yet Mohr’s hyperawareness of these clichés—unhip fathers, frigid wives, a constant soundtrack of mellow Muzak, a micromanaging housing committee prohibiting birdhouses and vivid paint colors—thrusts the novel and its characters into the realm of satire. However, while Bob may find himself in hyperbolic and surreal situations, his misery is very much grounded in a familiar and uncomfortable reality. In a passage that breaks from the wry humor and roaring momentum of the rest of the novel, Bob remembers a scene from his own childhood, shortly after his father had abandoned him and his mother. Too broken to cook, his mother feeds him pickled fruit from jars stored in the garage, and the two of them share plums, which remind Bob of hearts. The two of them wonder when Bob’s father will return, and filled with hope, Bob imagines that his father has just returned and is parking outside of the house. “‘I hope he’s out there,’ Bob Coffen said, holding and finally eating the heart.” Here, Mohr deftly shows us the human vulnerability that lies trembling just under the surface of each of his characters.
Once his wife forces him to leave their house, Bob befriends a balding janitor who performs in a cover band called French Kiss and who teaches Bob the lesson, “you gotta pay attention or things break on you.” Ace is referring to his snapped guitar string, but his statement rings true for Bob, who realizes that he has spent years not paying attention as he drifted through a lifeless marriage and a job he used to love. For its irreverent beat, relentless energy, and sharp, funny characters, Fight Song may as well be titled Battle Cry. And by the end of the novel, Bob Coffen’s battle cry is strong and confident, no longer a weak assertion of his name but a barbaric yawp, ringing through the suburbs.