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Book Review: Damascus by Joshua Mohr

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“He’d stopped pining for what his life used to look like, abandoned all possibility that you could tunnel back into earlier versions of yourself,” a down-on-his-luck character in the gritty and poignant Damascus reflects. “There were flukes, disasters, and then there were the consequences of these events, and that was your new life.”

Damascus, the name reputed to be the oldest city in the world — as if to reiterate that there’s no prior civilized place to escape to anyway — is the dive bar where he and other denizens of San Francisco’s Mission District nurse the dregs of a few truths, too. It’s also where “every interchange was a con, every night, a pitiful costume party,” the anti-Cheers where everybody knows your business or your back story.

Not that the reader gets initially overwhelmed by an onslaught of such matters. Mohr’s craftsmanship and deft subtlety in characterization comes into nuanced play as he sets the scene in 2003, when the country is split for and against the Iraq War, a not-so-subtle theme that will come into all-too-real play.

If you were a fly on the wall or a barfly with roaming eyes you would be hard-pressed to spot any immediate redeeming appeal lurking among the “dreary ilk,” the “hammerheads” and the “blotto-by-noon.” The owner of Damascus, 60-year old Owen, might come close to warm and fuzzy appeal though, especially when he takes to wearing a Santa suit that covers the unfortunate birthmark of Hitlerian comparison conspicuously slandering his upper lip.

Nevertheless, come rain or shine, off-season Santa or on, here come the regulars, among whom are No Eyebrows, a dying cancer patient on the run from his family, who has come to the Mission District to die alone and unknown. Shambles, stuck in her own kind of emotional cu-de-sac but ultimately “looking for a variety of ordinariness,” has added handjobs to her series of odds jobs. But, in Mohr’s  most accomplished storyline and sensitively portrayed characterization — a real transformation from off-putting beginning to caring  conclusion —  finds her business-like reserve and efficiency wearing down with No Eyebrows’ tender appeals for a closer connection.

The core of Damascus lies in contention, however. Owen’s yearned-for yuletide spirit might have gotten the better of him when he allows his niece Daphne’s best friend and artist Sylvia Suture to debut her crackpot ‘Olfactory Installation’ art exhibit — a political statement against the Iraq War — at the bar. Meant to serve as an action or rallying cry for those in the anti-war movement, Syl nails 12 live fish upon portraits of deceased soldiers. Many find it “gratuitously offensive” to the troops, but the media catches on, CNN spreads the story, and while some seem to come to a profound, if academic appreciation, many, who don’t know art but they know what they’re supposed to like, come to a suspect appreciation, subject to change.

At the same time, however, at the other end of all spectrums, Owen has made the acquaintanceship of injured Iraq War veteran Byron Settles, who is in close enough vicinity to get wind and the whatnots of the art show just about to be set up. But he is furious when he finds out the content of the works. Reacting to Sylvia’s contention that the point of her art was to represent “indictments” of The audience. Us,” Byron seethes:

“…She turned veterans into an art project. Ripped them from the context of being heroes. She wasn’t allowed to rape their memory. Hell no, he wouldn’t let them get turned into advertisements, some bullshit propaganda. They had families and friends and beyond that, they had the courage to fight. To do something. To defend our country. The courage where you have the  luxury to sit on your ass scribbling your meaningless pictures.”

Byron, more bark than bite — really a character who becomes more human and dimensional than his foil Sylvia — unwillingly passes the torch on to a large and loutish ruffian of ill-repute, who sparks off a situation which promises to cause more trouble. And it does. But really, a denouement in downfalls finds parallels with the fates of the characters. They’re not always satisfying, but they always mirror real life, rendered with the author’s evocative skill. Joshua Mohr also has a way with interweaving a variety of subplots, and juggling the ins and outs of an assorted and sundry cast of characters.

Not to mention the flukes, disasters, and the consequences of these events…

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch