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Damascus by Joshua Mohr


by Joshua Mohr

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493381,550 (3.86)33
Mohr takes listeners to 2003 San Francisco as the country divides into groups for and against the Iraq War. Damascus, a dive bar in the Mission District, becomes the unlikely setting for a showdown between the opposing sides. Tensions come to a boil when the bar's proprietor agrees to host a show by an ambitious artist with a flair for the dramatic.… (more)



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If ever there was a need for the 4.5 rating... this book was a pleasant surprise, I ended up really enjoying it a lot - there were just a few quibbles here and there that kept it from perfection. But, then again, maybe that's exactly the beauty of this book: it isn't quite perfect and that makes it all the more wonderful.

Raging Biblioholism review: http://bit.ly/jZwO6h ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
The Mission District in San Francisco is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city, and throughout its history it has served as one of the primary stepping stones for new immigrants to the Bay Area. Spanish missionaries and wealthy Mexican ranchers displaced the Native American population in the mid 19th century, and they were followed by immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Poland in the early 20th century, people from Mexico and Latin America in the middle of the century, and South Americans towards its end. The Mission has undergone extensive gentrification in the last 25 years, whose newest residents include a variety of artists, computer professionals left over from the dot-com boom, and young families and single professionals who desire affordable housing in the city and appreciate the vibrancy and diversity that exists there. The neighborhood does have its seamy side, with drunks, the mentally ill and homeless people on display, especially on Mission Street and close to San Francisco General Hospital on Potrero Avenue, and the gangs that operate at its edges.

However, the Mission has much to offer to its residents and visitors, with superb ethnic restaurants and stores, numerous independent bookstores, small venues which house works by new and established artists, musicians and playwrights, and the murals that define the neighborhood.

When I saw the cover of Damascus, with its portrayal of the decaying New Mission Theater on Mission Street, I picked it up immediately, in the hope that the book would describe the Mission District and its people. Wrong. What I got instead was yet another Weird Americana novel, in which the author seemingly sought out the most eccentric people he could find in real life, throw them together haphazardly and thoughtlessly in a literary pot, and see if he could construct a coherent story out of it.

Damascus is a divey bar populated by shabby men and city workers whose primary goal is to get more drunk than its proprietor, Owen, a forgettable man whose primary feature is a birthmark beneath his nose that looks like Hitler's mustache, which earns him derision from his bartender and his customers. The bar is in poor condition and is barely profitable. Its most notable regular is Shambles, a divorced woman who earns her keep—which is mainly spent on drinks—by giving hand jobs to men in the bar's bathroom. She is befriended by No Eyebrows, a man with end stage cancer who abandons his loving wife and daughter in the North Bay, as he cannot bear to die in front of them.

Owen begins to wear a Santa Claus outfit purchased from a street vendor, in the hope that a change of appearance will improve his outlook on life and his perception by others. In an effort to change the bar's image he decides to host an exhibition by Syl, a local artist who happens to the best friend of his niece, Daphne. It is 2003, and the country is divided by the Iraq War. Syl uses her art to protest the War on Terror, and creates 12 portraits of young American soldiers killed in the line of duty. She emphasizes her work by having a member of the audience nail a live fish over the face of each soldier, in order to represent the stench of death that accompanies the immoral and illegitimate war. Her art earns her the ire of Byron, a former Marine and present drunkard and ne'er do well who served with Owen, who vows to shut down the exhibition by whatever means are necessary.

Other than the rare reference to a familiar street or location, Damascus has absolutely nothing to do with San Francisco, the Mission District or its diverse population, and it could have taken place in any medium- or large-sized American city. It is filled with bland, one dimensional characters who failed to capture my interest, and the stories about Shambles and No Eyebrows were completely irrelevant to the main story line. Not recommended. ( )
  kidzdoc | Jan 21, 2013 |
Rating: 4* of five

The Book Description: It's 2003 and the country is divided evenly for and against the Iraq War. Damascus, a dive bar in San Francisco's Mission District, becomes the unlikely setting for a showdown between the opposing sides.

Tensions come to a boil when Owen, the bar's proprietor who has recently taken to wearing a Santa suit full-time, agrees to host the joint's first (and only) art show by Sylvia Suture, an ambitious young artist who longs to take her act to the dramatic precipice of the high-wire by nailing live fish to the walls as a political statement.

An incredibly creative and fully rendered cast of characters orbit the bar. There's No Eyebrows, a cancer patient who has come to the Mission to die anonymously; Shambles, the patron saint of the hand job; Revv, a lead singer who acts too much like a lead singer; and Owen, donning his Santa costume to mask the most unfortunate birthmark imaginable.

Damascus is the place where confusion and frustration run out of room to hide. By gracefully tackling such complicated topics as cancer, Iraq, and issues of self-esteem, Joshua Mohr has painted his most accomplished novel yet.

My Review: Reasons I picked this novel up at the liberry:

1)The author's hot.
2)The cover image made me sniffle a little for San Francisco's Mission district...and those who've heard me holler about how much I dislike California will know what a tough sell that is.
3)The author's hot.
4)It's published by a company called “Two Dollar Radio,” which made me grin in recognition of the old phrase “loud/cheap/tinny as a two-dollar radio.”
5)The author's hot.

So I stand convicted as a shallow, (homo)sexist pig, who will adventure into any waters if lured there by a sufficiently attractive man. Guilty as charged, can I pay my fine in trade, please?

But then comes the reading of the book so cavalierly shelf-picked.

Joshua Mohr's the real deal, guys. He's up there with Bonnie Jo Campbell and Donald Ray Pollock in the modern landscape-noir masters. He needs a third name, I guess...maybe Joshua Duke Mohr, I dunno...but this San Francisco he's studying and reporting on resembles the Tales of the City city the way Disney resembles Tarantino.

Every character in this gut-punch of a book is an ambulatory disaster area. Not one of them has a grasp of what this thing called “making a life” is about. They are not, however, unsympathetic. They're completely unable to get a handle on life, yes; but going on living, even if it's largely by rote or sheer stubborn inability to lie down despite being dead, has a bleak and painful dignity, and a respect-worthy demonstration of strength.

It's a book of losers. It's like Cannery Row with bathroom hand-jobs and nauseating “art” installations. It's got more grit than a sandpaper factory, and yes, a lot of it's gonna get between your cheeks as the events of the book knock you flat on your ass. It is, as another reviewer said, the anti-Cheers and thank goodness for that. Unsentimental books about people who don't do sentimental are good reads. This book is a very very good read indeed. The last 30 pages will do you in.

Ignore the spurious Beat/Bukowski comparisons. This isn't derivative. Joshua Mohr is the real deal.

Did I mention he's hot? ( )
12 vote richardderus | Sep 11, 2012 |
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