Review of Damascus by Joshua Mohr

by Elena Makansi, BSP Summer Intern

I had the opportunity to read Damascus as an ARC after picking it up from the Two Dollar Radio booth at Book Expo America 2011. I began reading it on the road home, and finished it somewhere between Wilmington, DE and St. Louis, MO.

The characters Mohr weaves in Damascus are quite wonderful and wonderfully strange. The owner of the bar, Owen (my personal favorite) has a birthmark on his upper lip that makes him look like Hitler. To hide from his own self-consciousness and escape the judgment of others, he dons a Santa suit he buys for twenty bucks on the sidewalk. His daughter, Daph, is a writer, poet, and lesbian. Her friend No-Eyebrows is suffering the very last months of cancer, hairless and sagging, grasping for hope, feeling, escape. He becomes a loyal and rule-breaking client of Damascus’ own sort-of-whore, whose office is located in the bar bathroom and whose nickname is Shambles. Then there is Daph’s friend Syl, the artist whose live show seizes two sides of a political battle and forces them together, unwittingly and with meaningful consequences.

Mohr’s firm grasp on characterization is clear. His characters are broken but shimmering, just like the shattered-mirror constellations Owen glues to the ceiling of his bar. They’re mean, vaguely gross, crass, and misguided drunkards, artists, and war veterans, yet they have a gentle, glowing core that’s soft to the touch. The reader wants these characters to hope, to feel okay, to be okay. Heroism, triumph, success—these grand concepts are perhaps even grander at a small scale, more deserved for the down and out, and even more meaningful for characters we can believe in. They remind us that the arc of one’s triumph does not have to be large to be significant, and that anyone can be a hero in their own small way. Just like the stars in the sky, Mohr’s may seem small from where we are standing, but by the end of the novel we can feel their heat and light in full-force.

My biggest beef with Damascus was the portrayal of the characters acting the pro-War side of the conflict. These on the “other side” seem stupid, violent, quick to judge, and flat. Perhaps this is an attempt to exaggerate and personify Mohr’s feelings about the war (it is part protest-novel, after all), in which case I think it would have benefited from a more compassionate outlook. Mohr uses up all of his wonder and character-insight for his Damascus-goers, and leaves very little for the art-show protestors. All of the characters in this book are misguided, but the difference is that those on the pro-War side are only misguided. They are not misguided but beautiful, or misguided but compassionate. They are simply wrong.

The book seized my heart at the very first paragraph, in which we are introduced to the Mission district bar at the core of the novel as a “planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.” This first paragraph is a portent of what’s to come. The writing is potent, poetic, and beautiful in a rough-hewn, worldly way. Some bits are pure stargazing, while other bits are a bit more down to earth, such as thorough descriptions of handjobs for an almost dead man. Damascus is graceful at heart, but full of stumbling characters and stumbling lives. Mohr’s ability to mix humor and grief and sympathy together is enviable and brilliant. I hope this book does not remain his “most accomplished novel yet” because I believe there is still lots of potential for growth for Joshua Mohr, and I hope to read more from him in the future.

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