Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the jerk-off queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.
The competing story lines offer up several different characters to follow. One of the ways that Mohr grounds this story, however, is by repeating a chorus of what’s happening in the real world, beyond the closed door, dark room, and blackouts of the seedy bar, Damascus. Take this example:
“There were other things happening in the world, of course…Three more American soldiers were killed in Iraq; five in Afghanistan. There were severe floods in the Tabasco and Chiapas regions of Mexico, killing about 3,000, though that was a conservative estimate. Iran reiterated that it was cultivating a nuclear program solely for energy production.”
These moments that break with the narrative allow us to not only ground the novel in the reality of the time and place that was 2003, but to show that despite the enormity of the lives that are fracturing at Damascus, the world is still spinning, and there is more to life than one little bar full of problems. Mohr says essentially that, later in the novel:
“And there were other things happening in the world, of course, because our lives all spin on the same spit. Seconds and heartbeats don’t stop until the clockwork breaks and the arteries dam.”
But most of the time, we are trapped at Damascus, wallowing in the lives of the broken men and women that inhabit the dive bar. One of the ways that Mohr makes this story come to life is in the gritty depictions of his main characters. Take this introductory description of No Eyebrows from the first chapter of the book:
“Owen placed the huge shot down on the bar, and as No Eyebrows reached for it with a shaking hand, Shambles looked at his sallow skin, the way it clung to him like a layer of film on cold chicken broth. Most people were shocked by his appearance because he reinforced the fact that everyone was going to die. People pursed their lips and averted their eyes, shaming him into near invisibility with the verve of their avoidances, trying not to ogle the prowling dead.”
This is a brutal and honest illustration of No Eyebrows. But Mohr doesn’t stop there. Shambles makes her living jerking off men in the bathroom, earning forty dollars a pop. She’s no beauty queen either. Reminiscent of Charles Bukowksi and Barfly, here is a quick sketch of Shambles:
“There were a few female regulars, and one who haunted the place was Shambles. She had acne scars all over her cragged cheeks, pocked like the mirror-shards glued to the bar’s ceiling. Skin crimped. Her hair had been bleached too many times: tips brittle, broken, crooked. Frayed bangs that fell down to her eyebrows and pointed a million directions like tassels. Her eyes used to be blue, but they’d faded to matte gray.”
At least we know what we’re getting ourselves into with this story. The punches won’t be pulled. We’re given a sober description of the men and women of this run down drinking hole.
While the storyline about the politics of Syl’s art show, and Owen’s desire to make something of his life are interesting, the most compelling thread, in my opinion, is the relationship between Shambles and No Eyebrows. At first, No Eyebrows just wants to be touched, the disease eating away at him, forcing him to leave his wife and daughter so they don’t have to watch him wither away to nothing. Take this scene, the first time that Shambles jerks off No Eyebrows, in the bar’s tiny, run down bathroom in the back:
“‘Do you like that?’ she said, and he said, ‘Don’t stop touching me,” and someone knocked on the door again and No Eyebrows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure, this was the first hand on him in months that didn’t belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he came, gasping for air and life and hope.”
At first, the hand jobs that happen in the back of the bar are just further depressing examples of how low Shambles has sunk. This is what her life has been reduced to—getting drunk in some crappy bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, making forty bucks at a time pleasuring lonely, ugly men. But as the story develops, we see that she wants more than that, and she starts to care for No Eyebrows, to have feelings for him. And that can only complicate things—how do you start a relationship with a man that you met performing sex acts in the back of a bar? And how does Shambles get over her own fears and insecurities?
This novel is not without humor though. The characters of Mohr’s narrative often laugh at themselves and the situations they have to endure in order to survive. Take this exchange between Maya, Shambles and Karla, three of the bar’s ladies of the night:
“‘I hate it when men try to be charming,’ Maya said. ‘Nothing weirder than getting a guy out of the bar and he turns into a philosopher.’
‘That’s why I keep them in Damascus’s bathroom,’ Shambles said. ‘No time to recite Shakespeare while my hand’s in their business.’
Karla snapped into the flow of the conversation: ‘I once took a guy home and while he came he shouted, “It was a dark and stormy night!”’
‘What did you do?’
‘What could I do? He’s a meteorologist.’”
Rim shot. Scattered throughout the novel there are bad jokes, and there are good jokes, but either way, they break up the tone and give the reader a moment to relax and take a breath, to understand that even in the depth of certain misery, these people often had a good time.
For a long time our world is only Damascus. But towards the end of the novel, when No Eyebrows goes home, we finally get his name, David, and the humanity of his need to be loved, his desire to leave and spare his family the pain of watching him die—it all slams back into focus, in a remarkably touching way. When we see Shambles meet up with her ex-husband in the final pages, and discover that she has a name too, Irene, we see that she is not done fighting, still trying to reach out and find a reason to keep on living, not just surviving. And these moments are rather fulfilling.
In Damascus, Joshua Mohr paints a picture that is thankfully not a romantic, nostalgic telling of what life is like as a barfly, sleeping on pool tables, waking up with illegible tattoos, lives and homes fractured, destroyed in the aftermath of selfish, ignorant behavior. He tells it how it is, in simple, graphic, raw words that leave no room for misinterpretation. If nothing else, you’ll emerge from Damascus thanking the stars that twinkle in broken shards of glass suspended over your head, that this is not your life.