By Joshua Mohr


Two Dollar Radio
October 2011

Reviewed by Matthew Wollin


Damascus is a novel close to home. Not so much because of its chosen topic—the recent past, the Mission district of San Francisco, and the Iraq war—but because it is hard not to be sympathetic to author Joshua Mohr's intentions. Attempting to say something at once timely, thoughtful, and original, it feels like he has consciously cast aside outside influences in order to find the work's own truth, which is a testament to both its honesty and the limits of its scope. In this, Damascus seems an accurate portrait of its subject, embodying the zeitgeist thoroughly enough that its weaknesses become its own.

Consequently, my critiques seem styled against me and my peers as much as against Damascus. Acknowledging the flaws in Mohr's work (a reliance on novelty instead of invention; ideas that don't look too closely at themselves) feels like acknowledging our flaws as well. When I looked for things to like or dislike, I did so with the vaguely feverish air that self-examination often entails. The novel seeks to be a critique, but functions as an inadvertent reflection instead.

Damascus revolves around a seedy San Francisco bar and a carnival sideshow of characters, from No Eyebrows to Shambles. Mohr excels in two particular scenes: the first is the installation of an art show in the bar by Syl, an artist "readying herself to harpoon America"; the second is its subsequent demolition by a group of militant former soldiers. The cinematic action of these scenes provides an otherwise absent home for the ideas he has kicking around. When the characters are set to demonstrating themes instead of reciting them, the slight thinness of the novel is subsumed into the world of the story. Mohr has a deft touch with the other set pieces as well; a brief passage of one characters' attendance at Burning Man is no less compelling. The more extreme the novel gets, the less heavy-handed it seems, the physical force of these passages giving heft and solidity to ideas that otherwise lack a solid base. 

Damascus is a novel where everything is reminiscent of something else. It winds up being both mildly endearing and irritating without ever being too much of either. Each of the characters seems almost intentionally vague, a gloss on stereotypes rather than an original creation: for all their tics, Shambles is a prostitute with a heart of gold; No Eyebrows is a dying man full of regrets; Owen is a sad barkeep who has seen too much of one thing and not enough of anything else.

The most compelling character in the novel is the most extreme, the most inexplicable, and the most detestable. Sam, an ex-marine with a hair-trigger temper and full of nostalgia for "the sort of anarchy he'd been missing", walks into the eponymous bar halfway through the novel and alters several lives irreversibly. The most intriguing question of the novel is why he does so; and though a satisfactory answer is never fully realized (it seems a bit like an artist's fantasy that an art installation would incite such intense reactions) that same opacity renders Sam alluring. Whereas the other characters are transparent to the point of being unconvincing, each finding improbable resolution by the story's close, Sam—and to a lesser extent, Byron, another ex-marine who wavers between sympathy and aggression—are refreshingly foreign. We do not understand them.

Everything else in the novel is perhaps a touch too lucid, a little too singularly drawn from one person's experience. It feels patterned after one particular conception of the world rather than the world itself, with all the concomitant insularity that entails. This perhaps accounts for why the most disruptive scenes are also the best, breaking free of the novel's thematic claustrophobia. But there is something admirable about Mohr's dedication to his ideas, as well as the way he manages to encapsulate the current times so thoroughly. In its sheer enthusiasm and will to succeed, the novel feels like the product of a youthful author, which is both a good and a bad thing. Though at times it strains so hard for immediacy that it ends up pulling itself out of step, there is unquestionably power in the writing, and the kind of blunt effectiveness that tends to leave readers divided. So while Damascus as a novel perhaps falls short, I look forward to seeing Mohr again reach for the admirably high bar he sets for himself.