Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Damascus

Read 9/09/11 - 9/20/11
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended
Pgs: 208
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio

*Damascus (noun): The “road to Damascus” is an image for a sudden turning point in a person's life.

I am no stranger to San Franciscan author Joshua Mohr. I read and adored his 2010 novel Termite Parade, dubbing it "The Next Best Book"; hosted a week-long interactive interview with him over at the TNBBC goodreads group; and was beyond thrilled to kick off a brand new monthly short story feature on this very blog by premiering his unpublished short story "Family"!

So it should come as no surprise when I tell you that his upcoming novel Damascus was at the tippity-top of my must-have list when I attended BEA this past May, and have it I did!

The book borrows its title from the little dive bar that serves as the epicenter of the novel... (and it's also quite the little play on words.  Joshua is one of the few authors I've read who seems to take joy in  aptly naming the people and places that populate his stories.)

In Damascus, we meet a rag-tag set of incredibly flawed and fantastic characters:

There's No Eyebrows, a stage four lung cancer patient who walks into Damascus after walking out on his family, sparing them the pain of watching him die. He seeks relief from his illness at the hands of Shambles, the patron saint of the hand job, who invites men into her "office" (aka the bathroom) to jerk them off for a living (Shambles is another play on words... the word, defined as "a confused mess", quite fittingly bestowed upon herself after leaving her boring marriage and accidently falling into her new line of work).

Owen, the bar's owner, attempts to hide his hideous Hitler birthmark beneath a grungy old Santa Suit after being humiliated by an 8 year old on the street. As a favor to his niece Daphne, Owen agrees to host Syl's art show in his bar, Damascus, who's upcoming project includes nailing live fish onto plywood paintings of soliders who've died during the War in Iraq. During this time, Syl becomes taken with Revv, a part time bartender who has a thing for self mutilation and art that stirs shit.

One night, after closing up the bar, Owen and Daphne bump into Byron -  an ex-solider with a dark, personally shameful past - who lives the "rebellious and unconventional lifestyle" his name implies. Owen takes Byron in temporarily while he works things out with his wife after an all night binger. Already unstable and unable to fully assimilate back to civilian life, Byron learns of the art show and the feelings it triggers in him cause a chain reaction none of the Damascus patrons can see coming.

Brilliantly written, Mohr gracefully deals with the heavier issues - such as cancer and the War in Iraq - by dispersing them with moments of pure beauty: Shambles photographing the female cancer survivor and sharing the pictures with No Eyebrows in an attempt to show him how beautiful his disease can be; Owen and Byron camping out on top of the pool tables in Damascus, with the candlelight reflecting off of the shards of broken mirror Owen had glued to the ceiling of the bar, resembling stars...

Joshua has this uncanny knack of creating characters that reflect those personal, private pieces of  us, and by doing that, he makes them live and breathe. They climb off the page and into our lives. Or rather, they reach out and pull you in... They are familiar to us, similar to us. They could be your friend or relative or neighbor. They could be you.

I dare you to show me someone who is baggage free, who is not hiding something, or hiding from something. Joshua knows the darkness that lurks within us, and like a good magician, he never fully shows his hand... he never stops weaving his magic spell on us.

*so says Dictionary.com

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