The more lucid the book, the bigger fan I'm becoming. In school or something, I was interested in stuff that didn't make sense, and now I want everything to be abundantly clear. I want clear writing. I don't want too many complex sentences or flowery metaphors or very academic words. Those are no fun.
But just because writing is “clear,” doesn't mean it isn't deep. Convoluted language doesn't equal depth. So let's bring in Joshua Mohr's new book, Damascus. Mohr writes with clarity. And the simple details portray complex characters. We've got Owen with a mustache that makes him look like Adolf Hitler. We have the cancer-stricken No Eyebrows who flees his family. We have Byron, a confused but dedicated soldier. The characters arrive simply, but arrive with lots of baggage. And they all end up at Damascus, a bar in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Damascus is Joshua Mohr's third book and is his third on Two Dollar Radio. Find more on the book here and find more on Joshua Mohr here.
What about the San Francisco Mission District makes it a good place to highlight such marginalized characters?
Are they marginalized? I guess so. These are just the people I know. I’ve lived in the Mission for many years, and this novel is a love letter to the neighborhood and all the crazy artists and hipsters and weirdoes that I’m lucky enough to interact with on a daily basis. Yes, my characters have a tendency to drink too much and probably wouldn’t recognize a smart decision if it sat on the barstool next to them, but don’t we all struggle with being nice to ourselves at times? The book might be built of hyperbolic metaphors, but it’s a story of humans hoping to do right by themselves, to varying degrees of success, of course.
It's interesting how Damascus and Owen go through a simultaneous personality change. Is it more difficult for a bar to change its personality than a person? And why do you think people are so fiercely loyal to their bars, more so than say, a restaurant or fav store?
No doubt people are loyal to their watering holes. I know a guy who only drinks certain spirits at certain bars. That’s a whole other level of commitment/depravity. “A-ha, this is the place where I drink gin!” he says. Or: “Here’s my whiskey joint!”
I’d have to say people have the potential to change. It takes more than a fresh coat of paint or some new taxidermy on the walls, but I cling to the delusion that each new day that I’m a part of the world is going to make a little more sense. And with that new sense, I’m going to try and make my life and the lives of the people around me a little bit better. If that doesn’t work, I can always hide in a Santa suit for the rest of my days, like Owen from the novel.
Why'd you choose a santa suit for Owen? compared to…a clown? or Easter bunny?
Well, clowns are just so fucking terrifying. And a grown man in a bunny suit is a close second. But we're used to seeing guys clad as Kris Kringle, so it seemed an appropriate “escape hatch” for Owen. Plus, he's very vulnerable in his quest for people to stop judging him based solely on his Hitler-mustache birthmark: he believes the costume will make people like him, rather than instantaneously evoking the Holocaust.
Your description of the soldiers in Damascus depicts them as more dangerous than heroic. Why did you choose to highlight that side of veterans returning from Iraq/Afghanistan?
I didn’t highlight anything about soldiers, plural. I talked about two very specific men, who happened to be soldiers. One of them, Byron Settles, is pretty lost since his tour in Iraq, but if I’ve done my job right, the reader interacts with him in an empathic way. We understand the facts of his life that have contributed to the remix of Byron we see before our eyes.
The other one, Sam, is a psychopath. Plain and simple. He could be an investment banker or a construction worker or your mom—not your mom specifically, Mr. Spilker, but a general sense of mom-ness to bolster my argument that anybody can be psychopathic.
Just flipping through now, I see a couple of your subtitles mention treason. What's caused you to think about and write about that issue?
I was very conscious of trying to present both sides of the Iraq war with flawed arguments. The performance artist, Sylvia Suture, who sort of launches the left wing side of the argument, has a very naïve sense of geopolitics. I don’t want her to seem enlightened. I’m definitely having some fun with her, wanting her character to seem young, idealistic.
As for the soldiers, they can’t wrap their heads around how Sylvia is choosing to present her anti-war version of patriotism: they feel a sense of responsibility to hold her accountable for what they consider seditious expression. And then the way each side of the argument rubs up against each other, that’s what makes the book combust.
I want to ask something about No Eyebrows, but not sure what. I was really intrigued with the idea of how cancer patients are treated in our society. Essentially as modern-day lepers. It's like getting sick is a crime. Feel free to add a comment.
I mentioned earlier that Damascus is a love letter to the Mission District. It’s also a love letter to my father, who died of stage-four lung cancer. I sat by his bed and watched him die, and there was a selfish part of me that didn’t want to witness his slow decline. I used that as a way to launch another part of the book: what would happen if a cancer patient abandoned his family to die anonymously? Hopefully, too, this storyline helps Damascus stay away from just being a book about protest or the Iraq war: it’s a novel about humans hurting, trying to adapt, doing their best, etc.
I love ensemble storytelling, all those crazy old Robert Altman flicks from the 70s. So even though Damascus is only 200 pages, it’s a pretty sprawling story—especially up front for the first handful of chapters—and slowly all the seemingly disparate stories converge as the book builds to its climax.
Any books that you've admired that do the ensemble well?
Johnny Evison's West of Here from earlier this year was a wild, fun take on the ensemble story–over 40 main characters. I admire Rick Moody's novella “Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven.” And what kind of literary writer would I be if I didn't mention Infinite Jest? Not that I always understood what was going on in that one, mind you, or needed such detailed accounts of tennis matches, but DFW's a huge influence on everybody working right now. I teach in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and always tell my students that it's important to know what our forebears did on the page. We're not working in a vacuum. In fact, we're participating in a conversation that's been going on since scribbles on cave walls. Now it's our turn to graffiti!
I heard you on the Other People Podcast mention that you write at night a lot. Does that influence your choice of subject matter, since bars and the like are generally lumped in with the nocturnal…
I struggle with insomnia. But I’m done writing about bars. In fact, I just finished what will be my next book—this crazy fairy tale. My first 3 books all deal with a pretty similar milieu, and I want to push myself out of my comfort zone.
That’s one thing I think is key to staying an interesting artist: challenging your habits, subverting them on the page. I’m in unchartered territory that might lead to total fucking disaster. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.