Damascus – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Step aside Franco, Joshua Mohr has shelled out a book worthy of international recognition, and it isn’t set in Palo Alto, but the one and only San Francisco. And if there was ever an intro more honest and raw, it’s that of Damascus:

“I wanted to write about an oddball litany of players, from a berth of backgrounds, varied demography, contradictory social viewpoints ranging from veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom to performance artists. I wanted to honor my father, who died of cancer, by writing about an imagined cancer patient. I wanted to examine my struggles with booze and drugs via a female character named Shambles, whom I absolutely cherish. I wanted, in my own small way, to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to talk about the simple self-esteem battles that every human fights day in day out, by featuring a character inexplicably hiding in a Santa suit. Most importantly, I wanted to pen a wild, reckless romp, a weird world for a reader to huddle in for a few hours.” – Joshua Mohr

In Damascus, Mohr presents a series of vignettes ridden with contemporary grit. With a unique and impactful writing style, he takes the reader through the burdens of cancer, an unlucky birthmark, avant-garde art, even war scars: “One minute you were an invincible Sky Soldier of the 173rd about to grab the Bashur Airfield by its fucking nuts and flank those hajji cock- suckers from the north. Your unit frothing for combat. All that elite training and now it was time to knock skulls. But you hit the ground and mangled your knee. Your war was over after two seconds, two steps, and months later you were here, limping around the Bay Area, blowing off physical therapy and blowing into your steering wheel and still so ashamed, so hollow.”

What hits me the hardest is not necessarily the book’s content (the cancer, the irrepressible urge to wear a Santa suit, the post-war misery), it’s Mohr’s narrative voice. It bursts with a refreshing edge, a dark jingle almost. Take his description of Shambles, an alcoholic hooker casing the bar for her next drink: “Shambles was the patron saint of the hand job, getting strangers off for less than the price of a parking ticket. So far tonight she’d done only one, though there would be more fondling to finance her bar tab. The night was young and full of fisted opportunities.”

Flash to a passage where his cancer subject, No Eyebrows, finds a moment of peace in the hands of this saint: “No Eye-brows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure, this was the first hand on him in months that didn’t belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he came, gasping for air and life and hope.”

Passages like these never felt grimy or disgusting; rather they stung, especially the parts depicting No Eyebrows’ final march toward hopelessness in self-solitary confinement. We find that he has chosen to spend his final months of life chasing a hand-job hooker in this dump bar, Damascus, away from conventional comforts like his home, his wife.

At times, I wanted to bust down the doors and save everybody whether it be with a hot meal, a shower, a tall whiskey, or “here’s a hundred dollars, don’t whore your hands out tonight.” But Mohr does something magnificent with these ragged characters, bringing them together in a single bar, in Damascus, and presents them in such a way that they shimmer while crumbling.

Rivaling Tony O’Neill’s grittiness and Dave Eggers’ polished prose, Mohr is an articulate writer with another cult classic on his hands. Damascus releases in October of 2011 over at Two Dollar Radio, a small press that is seriously “too loud to ignore.”

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