Review by Jon Reiss
Generally when opening a book, particularly one by a new author, there’s an extended period of ambivalence, of guarded, hesitant reading, a sort of challenge to the author to see if his story and characters can win one over. It’s not unlike a blind date: you’re approached by a new person who wants something from you. To let this person in is a sacrifice, a gamble that could enrich you beyond your wildest dreams or, frankly… fuck you. I’m delighted to share that Joshua Mohr, with his new novel Damascus, was a perfect gentleman from start to finish, his breath cool and fresh and his manners well intact. Let there be no ambivalence about this review, Damascus is one of those rare exceptions to the aforementioned initial reading experience. The opening prose in Damascus will grab you right away, his voice quietly and skillfully lowering that inherent initial reader’s guard. Damascus is a novel so compelling in the first few pages that even if the characters failed to engage by book’s end, it would still would have been a worthwhile read. In short, Mohr’s is the first voice I’ve fallen in love with in years, and Damascus is without a doubt one of 2011’s best novels.
It would be an injustice to the prospective reader to attempt an in depth plot summary of Mohr’s novel. In short, it’s a collection of characters with intertwining stories that create what we’ve come to identify as a novel, as well as an interesting use of short story style writing in novel form. It’s the story of a cancer patient whose abandoned his family, a ex marine who tore his ACL before seeing action, a bar owner with a birthmark that makes him look like Hitler and a female artist who looks like Harry Potter when she’s naked, all living in San Fransisco and grappling with the world’s expectations of them versus their expectations of themselves. Though all the characters in this novel exist in the same general locale, they all experience distinctly different realities, and have varying expectations of themselves, and each other. With this palate, Mohr delivers pain, pathos and a unique perspective on human nature.
The author’s style, voice and grasp of language are major ingredients in this books success. His tendency to find beauty inside the grittiness of life and his ability to converge plain language with the occasional, covert literary flourish make it difficult not compare him to Celine and Bukowski. Considering that at least a generation’s worth of new writers have unsuccessfully attempted this kind of voice, Mohr’s success is all the more impressive. It also illuminates why so many try and fail, and illustrates the payoff. Damuscus is a novel that never bludgeons you with its beauty. Like a great film director that lulls the viewer into forgetting that a director is present, Mohr succeeds at disappearing from this novel while at the same time maintaining a strong and unique narrative voice. All this coupled with the kind of grit likely to turn off major agents and publishers, but capable of making the most jaded of readers pay attention, and the kind heart that rarely accompanies such grit, makes Damascus a chimerical beast of a book, not yet seen north of the millennium. Damascus is the first novel in a long time likely to make you cry during a handjob scene. In wannabe writers, Damascus will instill jealousy and hope, and give the most dejected of us reason to keep trying.