Over the past few years, Joshua Mohr has established a reputation as a comic novelist of grunge. He stumbled onto the critical radar with a trilogy of novels about San Francisco’s mission district: Some Things That Meant the World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus. Stickily mired in the underworld of addicts and alcoholics, these books are distinguished by a deep sympathy for losers. Mohr’s hapless boobs come together in a simulacrum of love and family while swimming in stinking pools of despair.
Also, they’re really funny. Damascus for example, features a character with a facial scar resembling Hitler’s moustache. In a drunken Christmas epiphany, he decides to always dress as Santa Claus—the beard hides the scar, and people treat Santa better than Hitler. In Fight Song, Mohr relocated his fictional world from dive bars to suburbia, but kept the funny: one of the characters is a cashier at a fast food restaurant who moonlights as a voiceover dominatrix on the restaurant’s drive through intercom.
With Sirens, his first nonfiction book, Mohr resolutely sets aside the laughs in favor of what he calls “this thing called honesty” to tell a self-lacerating memoir that spares nothing. I’ll mention here, as I should, that Mohr and I are casual acquaintances, participants in the very active San Francisco literary scene. We have occasionally shared a stage at readings; I’ve attended several of his book release parties, and was even a guest at his wedding reception. I’ve seen him around, and know him to be an unusually friendly, very sociable guy. I was also aware that he was “in recovery from alcoholism,” as am I.
Nothing in these encounters prepared me for the story he tells in Sirens. Like many an alcoholic/addict, Mohr has lived two lives: presenting a public self who is attractive, charming, capable, friendly, and kind, but living a hidden life dedicated, in one of his remarkable phrases, to “the thrill of worshipping pure despair.”
Since the early 90s, we have seen enough memoirs about alcoholism, addiction, and recovery to constitute a genre. These books mostly follow a familiar formula: first there is a description of high times full of joyful mania, then the inevitable lows, followed by the intervention of family or god or fate or whatever, and the subsequent recovery and happily-ever-after. This approach is summarized in the now well-known sub-culture of Alcoholics Anonymous as “what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.” But Mohr eschews formulas. He begins not with addiction and despair, but with a reflection on the dangers of relapse, the call of the Sirens. While most memoirists in this field focus on the stark contrast between active addiction and recovery, Mohr treats recovery as a very frightening, if joyful place, using as a metaphor the image of Odysseus tied to the mast as his ship sails past the island of the sirens. He fights, against his better judgment, to tear himself loose and dive into the sea, even though he knows he would perish on the rocks. For Mohr, the mast to which he has tied himself is family: a loving wife and adorable toddler. Still, the sirens call. It is Mohr’s astonishing accomplishment to show us how such a temptation is possible. He brings home the realization that all of us stand on the brink of despair. Freud’s “death drive” is real. We must daily choose life, not just go along with it, if we wish to be fully conscious.
Carl Jung pointed out the connection between “spirits” and “spirituality” and theorized that alcoholics and addicts were actually on a spiritual quest. In a memorable sequence in Mohr’s book, a recovering addict speaks to a group in rehab on family day, opening with the observation: “Does anyone know where the word addiction actually comes from? It’s Latin. From the word Addictus. Meaning to devote yourself entirely. To worship.”
In describing his own worship at the altar of despair, Mohr sets aside his comic gifts to write with a straight forward voice that cuts no slack. His carefully crafted anecdotes are violent, often shocking or disgusting, and never played for a laugh. Sirens is poetic, touching, inspiring, and deeply empathic, but it is rarely funny. Instead, it seeks, with audacious honesty, to come to grips with the reality of relapse. For recovering addicts and alcoholics, living fully and taking personal risks is to engage in “relapse roulette.” It takes a circuitous and perilous route, but, in the end, Sirens can fill the reader with hope.
I’ll take it.