by Joshua Mohr
oshua Mohr’s Damascus
, is part barroom Dickensian cultural dissection and part Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia
, a wide lens look at the frail and yearning, the artists and poets and cancer patients and prostitutes and bartenders and war vets and rock singers who proliferate the novel’s dive bar setting. Here the all-seeing narration hovers like God’s eye over the resultant turmoil, and who sees into all hearts and minds, into the confused and inarticulate core of humankind, all forced to face the consequences of their actions, held to the flame of accountability.
The centerpiece of Damascus
’ various and motley cast is Owen, the owner of the San Francisco dive bar Damascus, with his Hitler mustache birthmark, taunted on city streets by children and their fathers, until he takes to constantly wearing a filthy Santa outfit purchased from a homeless man. These absurdities are nice textures, shelter and safe haven for a too-nice man wracked by fear and doubt: Was it the names he called himself within the walls of his skull: loser rotten stinking alcoholic waste of air? Was it the blood in his stool? Why didn’t he go to rehab…Why did life lurch on smeared in the same coagulated details?
And in this way, the cast, knowingly or not, each hides their essential humanity behind some disguise, some mystery or anonymity: the doomed cancer patient who is known for the majority of the novel as No Eyebrows, who has left his family in his dying hours; or Byron, the friendly, good humored alcoholic Owen allows to sleep on his pool table rather than drive drunk; the ex-soldier who blew out his knee before he could fulfill his dreams in combat and who now wakes drunk in distant cities rather than face the confusion of civilian life.
It is the presence of Byron while Owen’s niece’s friend, Syl, holds the first public showing of her art at Damascus (portraits of dead soldiers arranged on the walls), which gives the conflict its shape: Byron who opposes the showing as an obscenity and Syl who hungers to finally escape the obscurity she has toiled under. Byron recruits another ex-soldier, Sam, to frighten Owen into closing down the showing, only to see it continue, the fish putrefy, war protests gather outside. Thankfully, Mohr’s intentions seem less to create a dialectic with the inevitable showdown than to unify humanity under the umbrella of our mutual uncertainty—for both sides come out as regretful and incapable of understanding and appreciating their motivations much less the ramifications of their actions: Byron, caught between his fidelity toward the men who served and died, the men he never got to be, and his regard for Owen, the man who saved him and sheltered him. Equally lost is Syl, the artist herself, who hammers live fish to the walls not out of any real conviction but because I knew I wanted to kill something and they were easy to get. Plus, I hoped they’d look badass squirming on the canvass
and because it is her belief that art should stir shit
and who crumbles when the dark and actual consequences of her show arrives.
Mohr intends to place no side over the other, that one may seem to snuff the other, only to have a new song smolder and flare into light moments later
If any character seems above doubt and fear, entirely assured of their actions and their consequences, it is Sam, the one-eyed vet who threatens to pluck Owen’s eye for his part in the exhibition, as if to suggest the triumph of brute force and violence over art or intellect. However, without revealing too much of this novel’s gripping story, it is clear at the end that Mohr intends to place no side over the other, that one may seem to snuff the other, only to have a new song smolder and flare into light moments later.
In the New Testament Acts Saul is converted into the Prophet Paul on the road to Damascus. It is for the reader to decide if any of these characters find salvation from the ruins of this novel’s conflict, but it does become clear that Mohr wishes us to know that it is better to free ourselves from our hiding places and inhibitions, that in life there are so many chances to maul our worlds
, and we must allow ourselves the chance to step toward the light, even if only to be consumed by it.