Some Things That Meant the World to Me

Joshua Mohr

Two Dollar Radio
June 2009, Paperback, 208 pages

Some  Things That Meant the World to Me

Reviewed by Darby Dixon III


Joshua Mohr’s debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, is where Michael Gondry would go if he went down a few too many miles of bad desert road. Replace the director’s Science of Sleep-style clouds-of-cotton whimsy with harsh whiskey and hot sand and you get a sense for the dark world Mohr constructs. Dark, yet not pitch black: he pits his vision of ugly realities against one of basic human kindness. It is this tension that gives his engaging novel its emotional power.

Some Things is narrated by Rhonda, a young man on the edge of turning 30. It is a past-isn’t-even-past story, the chapters alternating between Rhonda’s present-day down-and-out life in San Francisco, California, and his hurt youth in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was raised by an absent (frequently physically so, usually emotionally so) mother and her various boyfriends. Of the boyfriends, Letch takes center stage:

Letch was mom’s latest boyfriend and he called me Rhonda because he said that was a dumb blonde name and that I was a dumb blonde, as in, “Are you queer, Rhonda?” and “Make me another Bloody Maria, Rhonda.” I was a boy so I didn’t like being called a girl’s name, and my hair was black, but Letch was a tough guy so I had to let the whole Rhonda thing slide.

Understatement: neither Letch nor the mother would ever be nominated for Parent of the Year awards. But Mohr wisely raises them both above archetypical wicked-parent status, giving them enough definition to keep them from growing tiring, or even entirely unlikeable. Rhonda’s mother does have love to give, and she offers enough of it to Rhonda that he comes to crave it. As for Letch, Rhonda puts it best: “It’s hard for me to know how much to tell you about Letch because I don’t want you to like him. But the truth is there were a lot of days when he was all right.”

Meanwhile, in 2007, Rhonda is an unemployed line cook seeing the world through childhood-colored glasses. He drinks for free in a dive bar next to Vern (a seventy-year-old who wears a diaper and has eyebrows “long and rolled like handlebar mustaches”), falls in love with Handa, a Jordanian girl who works at a nearby liquor store, and befriends his upstairs neighbor, a woman named Rhonda (“old lady Rhonda”), shortly after a literally fiery fight between herself and her husband.

Where the story might feel like anguish without aim, the structure generates interest by taking us through the lives of these various relationships, providing steady insight into Rhonda’s character. The childhood segments, dramatic in themselves as short stories, illuminate the struggles of his adulthood. Justifiably or not, it is understandable that Rhonda is the way he is. He can not help but fit people into or against the molds left behind by his mother and Letch. For Rhonda, nobody can be entirely themselves.

The past also more directly intrudes upon the present. Through a series of interludes, we learn that Rhonda has spent time in a mental hospital in the care of Dr. Angel-Hair, dubbed such for the thinness of his wrists:

The other kids were always talking about Angel-Hair’s horrendous limp, but I loved his wrists. If he even tried to clip his fingernails, the vibrations would buckle the bones in his hands. I imagined him with a fingernail file, working carefully, slowly, trying not to hurt himself. Just trying to file them all down without an amputation.

Rhonda may or may not suffer from depersonalization, which may or may not explain his hallucinations. As a child, he saw his house split apart, “its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents....I could see the carpet rip in places, desert sand slipping into the house.” As an adult, humiliated in front of a prostitute whose life he has saved, he meets a young boy on the street, who claims to be him—“little Rhonda.” The novel does not so much falter here as become a bit blunt. In borrowing from the language of unreliable narration and dream to sculpt the central conflicts into metaphor, the story winds up feeling perhaps a shade obvious. Distance between family members becomes literal distance; the search for meaning in youth’s detritus becomes a literal dive into a trash-filled dumpster; and so forth. There is little chance the reader will forget what is real and what is imagined; on a bad day, it could feel like a little much.

The patient reader, though, will realize it does not have to. Mohr’s remarkably confident, matter-of-fact style saves these elements from tipping into outright cliché, allowing them to serve the story’s better, more true interests: delivering a series of resonating, understated emotional punches, beginning with the way Mohr regularly displays a poet’s ear for figurative language: “His teeth looked like frozen ginger ale”; “My good hand went nuts, a hive writhing with angry life”; “That was how perfect it was, watching the plane scribble the sky with a jaundiced dust that drifted down to the corn, like toxic confetti”; the list goes on, as Mohr's prose is perpetually delightful.

That Mohr manages to do a pathos-rhetoric thing without diving into full-on self-involved emo wankery is commendable. Admittedly, lines like the following, out of context, might read as thinly heavy as the gothic poetry from the journal of a high schooler:

Things were awful and there was no way all this sadness would ever be conquered by anything else. Life was just a collection of sadness, an acceptance of sadness, its prowess caging us all in regret.

In context, though, these moments work, fitting well with Rhonda’s stunted-growth character, as they are balanced out by the otherwise level-headed prose and the story’s jaded heart. See the homeless person who Rhonda photographs to remind himself that “even when things didn’t seem like they could get any worse, there were always grotesque mutations.” Also see the chapter “What Could be More Important,” which itself is worth the price of admission, and is, incidentally, the source of so much of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for this book, being the point at which this reviewer, his first time through the novel, had to set it down for a couple breaths.

There is true hope here, even in the face of all the nasty; through “our collective race to oblivion,” our powerlessness and hopelessness, there is genuine potential for something more than mere survival, for some true kindness, the chance to avoid those “grotesque mutations.” The tension between the two is where the book wraps its hands around the reader’s heart. It does so without offering easy answers: sometimes, as Mohr has it, being fine is about something other than being fixed.