about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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A Review of Damascus
by Joshua Mohr

Spencer Dew

“Let’s start this one when a cancer patient named No Eyebrows creeps into Damascus, a Mission District dive bar,” Joshua Mohr’s new novel begins. A hyperbolic microcosm, Damascus is a Petri dish for the author’s rollicking imagination and an arena in which he can exercise his empathy, apply thoughts on art and humanity to real issues in the real world. Damascus is no more the real world than the Tug & Maul or the Safari, similar experimental microcosms, fallen worlds, their architecture and denizens hammered into detail by the typewriter of an author I found it hard not to think about all during my reading of Mohr’s good book, Nelson Algren. Mohr, like Algren, uses the distorted fun-house glass of his imagined bar to show his readers some truths of the human condition, magnified if also a little warped around the edges.

Algren claimed, about The Man with the Golden Arm, that he had started out writing a novel about the war and found, in the process that “the war kind of slipped away, and those people with the hypos came along....” Mohr’s book, in turn, is “about” the invasion of Iraq—Washington’s methods and motivations, public opinion and response—“about” the sacrifice of American soldiers in the service of a falsely advertised cause. But as with Algren’s book, where junkies, dealers, cripples, whores, and turnkeys snatch the spotlight off any intellectual ideal of a “subject,” Mohr’s book becomes a living engagement with the tattered, patchwork humanity of the folks who hang out at—work at, live at—the dive bar Damascus.

There is the aforementioned cancer patient, a woman who masturbates men for drinking money, a man hiding inside a Santa suit, a young man with an allegorically illegible tattoo, and, of course, an artist, whose plan for the bar involves installing a series of portraits of American soldiers killed in Iraq, accenting these pictures with dead fish—or live fish, killed in the act of performance—to remind her audience of the reality of death, the horror of war, the sacrifice of our soldiers, etc. This is the “about” part, which leads to some excesses of plot, flashes of violence, some nudges toward nuance, but the strongest parts of this book don’t involve hostages or pepper spray or even articulated opinions.

Before the bar becomes a gallery, before it becomes a story, it is a remarkably imagined place, safe haven and cage, “its own kind of assisted living facility,” as one characters puts it, a place where “every interchange was a con.” Reeking not of out-of-place fish but of all-too-organic “semen like garlic oil” and the hot air from drunken “filibusters about busted childhoods,” the bar is broken-down and grimy and achingly real. Your hands might get sticky just reading about it, and Mohr is a master, too, of the small tragedies that play out in this environ, the slippery slopes that lead one to slouch in mid-morning and drink the day away. He presents poignancies so sharp the cuts they leave won’t heal: a fig bar placed beside a sleeping bag, for instance, achieves iconic status. These bar scenes will haunt readers. And while later a character begins to theories on how “Art should stir shit.... Art should be an accusation,” Mohr is at his most stirring when he describes the “tinfoil reek from tar heroin” that hangs in the air of the bathroom stalls, or when he has one character whisper into the portacath of that cancer victim, offering solace by offering present companionship, authentic encounter. “We are all members of each other,” Algren writes in The Man with The Golden Arm, implying that to look into the faces of the misfits and washed-out punks clocking their days at the Tug & Maul is, itself, a stirring action, one with ethical weight. Mohr follows in this tradition, and Damascus is a profoundly human book.

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