Damascus by Joshua Mohr (A Review by Tyler Grimm)

Available October 2011 from Two Dollar Radio

208 pages

$16.00

“A life without art was like skin without tattoos, boring and empty and pale.”    – Joshua Mohr (Damascus)

We’ve all been to seedy bars. Hell, some of us practically live there, and the characters you meet in those dark bars, in the shadows, hiding from the world, themselves, reality, or whatever, are the denizens of Joshua Mohr’s beautifully macabre Damascus. This novel about the lives that intersect and collide at a bar in the Mission District of San Francisco is laced with apparent immorality, grimy lifestyles, poor life choices, and various denials and excuses employed by the characters. But once you get past the wonderfully abrasive prose, acidic language, and the notion that Bukowski is smiling somewhere in revelry, you will find that the characters are not what you originally thought. It is the surprisingly tender moments that you never expect and the real depth to the characters that breathe life into Damascus (the bar and the book), and me as a reader and writer.

Having not read Joshua Mohr’s first two novels, I began reading Damascus unprepared, but before the first page of the story, I found a comparison of his previous work to Bukowski, and I was immediately hooked. Although the style is different (Mohr is more traditional with his punctuation – he actually uses it), along with the voice – both of which are unique to Mohr – the characters we meet are just what you might expect from the Poet Laureate of Skid Row.

“Deception was the norm: cab drivers disclosed that they were venture capitalists; rickety alcoholics morphed into ex-athletes; those with anonymous office jobs had recently retired from the cubicle because of an important invention. (One bloke even tried to convince a woman that he masterminded the Caps Lock key.)”

Then there is Shambles, a middle aged woman who steals the show. She gives hand jobs in the bathroom to supplement her income, and she wants nothing more than that from her male clients, or any male she meets. No Eyebrows, a former lawyer and self-proclaimed “prick in a Porsche” is dying of cancer, nearing the end. Having recently abandoned his wife and daughter, he is on the run from his family and from his own impeding death. Owen, the owner and bartender of Damascus, an aging alcoholic with a hideous birthmark on his upper-lip (that reminds everyone of Hitler) is full of unbridled self-loathing. The only person who can get through Owen’s icy demeanor is his lesbian poet niece, Daphne, who works as an English tutor, and who is also an amazingly kind and genuine human being.

Nothing ever changes at Damascus until No Eyebrows walks in. He and Shambles begin a reluctant relationship after she jerks him off in the bathroom, and allows him to touch her shoulder, which leads somewhere unexpected.

“Every interchange was a con. Every night, a pitiful costume party. Except here was No Eyebrows blowing the whole cycle of charades for everyone. Here he was having the audacity to be heartfelt, and what was Shambles supposed to do with someone showing honesty?”

Around the same time, Owen begins donning a Santa Claus suit (beard, hat and all) after a small girl shouts that he looks like Hitler on the street. Sick of the comparison, Owen covers the birthmark with his beard, and develops a new persona for himself. Owen decides to embody Santa Claus, being kind and generous, which ultimately backfires when he takes in Byron Settles, a former Marine, now a drunk, for a week. Owen just happens to take in Byron a few days before Daphne’s best friend Syl, an up-and-coming artist, is about to unveil her newest collection at Damascus: A controversial collection called The Olfactory Installation which employs portraits of soldiers who have died in The War on Terror, in an effort to coerce those safe at home to remember the men and woman who died for them.

I’m not going to give it all away, but the depth and transformation of these characters when all the cards are on the table, when all Hell breaks loose, is like an emotional kick in the chest. This exquisitely transgressive story takes an unpredictable turn when these characters are placed in certain situations where they are given the choice to do the right or the wrong thing. And this is exactly what makes Damascus such a powerful novel – Mohr manages to craft characters that are despicable at first but as they grow, the reader grows, and we then find ourselves cheering them on in the face of adversity, themselves, love, life, reality, and death.

“Then [No Eyebrows] said, ‘Please hug me one more time,’ and so [Shambles] did and during this final embrace he remembered their first hug, how much healing he’d felt that night in Damascus’s bathroom. It didn’t even matter if the healing wasn’t real, if it had been like a sleazy minister tricking his congregation into believing.”

And that is the message I’ll leave you with. Those seedy people that lurk in the shadows of bars that we talked about earlier; those people that are probably hiding from something. You may be one of them. I may be too, but I’ll never tell. Damascus is about those people, as they search for a way to heal themselves after realizing that nobody is going to do it for them.

*

Tyler Grimm is a novelist, screenwriter, and short fiction writer, currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through Wilkes University. He is a contributing writer for Celebrate Gettysburg Magazine, and has recently begun reviewing fiction for PANK Magazine. He was a judging reader for the James Jones Fellowship Award in 2011, and has recently begun the process of starting a local writing workshop near him. His short film, Asthenia, is in the early stages of production. He has been working on his first novel, tentatively entitled Closer Than They Appear. Tyler lives in suburban Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and his dachshund.

  • William D. Prystauk

    You had me at “Bukowski.” Excellent review!