JOSHUA MOHR: terminal cancer, alcoholism, hitler, prostitution, dead fish—what could be more heartwarming?

(Charles Kruger)

Joshua Mohr once said that he tries to write “so that the reader feels as if they are sitting in the front of a theatre with aggressive actors splashing spit in their faces.”

With the release of Damascus, he nails us squirming to our metaphorical seats as we read—wanting sometimes to look away, but irresistibly drawn to observe and ultimately love his initially unlovable characters. He presents them with a poets’ sensibility, drawing us in with startling images: a cancer patient with no eyebrows (lost to chemotherapy); a bartender with a birthmark like Hitler’s moustache who takes to wearing a Santa Claus suit so that people will respond more kindly to him; a barfly “patron saint of the handjob” with “acne scars all over her cragged cheeks” and “hair [that] had been bleached too many times.”

The setting is a Mission bar called Damascus, introduced when a customer remarks—after viewing the cut mirror glass the owner has used to decorate the ceiling—”There must be 10,000 years of bad luck hanging here.”

Later, two middle aged friends enjoying a bromance camp out on the bar’s pool tables one night, talking like two teenagers and gazing at the bad luck shards as though they were stars of the night sky.

Most intriguing, perhaps, is his central image of an artist who creates an installation at the bar, for which she nails live fishes to her canvasses of American soldiers who died in service. The fish will rot throughout the run of her show in order to force its audiences to confront the smell of death.

In Damascus, the viscerally unforgettable images just keep coming.

Mohr says that the narrative style of the book was inspired by Robert Altman‘s films of the 1970s, most specifically “Nashville.” He wanted to create multiple story lines around a common locale and allow them to comment on each other and finally come together in a satisfactory close. He succeeds.

Here is Josh reading from Damascus at Booksmith on Tue Oct 25 11:

Joshua Mohr