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Santa-land in the Mission District

November 29, 2011

In Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Kris Kringle is drunk on cheap booze most of the time and using a pool table for a bed. Of course, he’s not our North Pole man — it’s not even Christmas – rather, he’s Owen, the owner of Damascus, a dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. His out-of-season costume is a means to cover up an embarrassing birth mark underneath his nose that looks like a Hitler moustache and to find asylum from his insecurity.

Owen’s deadbeat bar customers similarly find asylum behind the doors of his bar, where the ceiling is a star-filled night sky created from mirror shards and cotton balls. Damascus may be, in simple definition, an alcoholic’s hangout. To understand its true nature, though, this colorful establishment is better described as a demented Cheers in atmosphere and an assisted living facility in function. The perpetually soused Owen desires to give everyone a break. He provides refuge to an ex-Marine paratrooper, Byron Settles, who’s too drunk to drive home, and opens his bar to Sylvia Suture, an artist needing space for her olfactory installation that’s been rejected by 15 galleries.

No wonder, there. With the sound of whirling helicopter blades in the background, Sylvia nails dead catfish to 12 portraits of American soldiers who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, recreating what she believes is the stink George W. Bush created for our nation. Her effort lays the groundwork for explosive tension to arise between Syl’s fans and Byron Settles’ fellow U.S. Marines, who threaten Owen and storm Damascus in anger.

If the novel Damascus is beginning to feel like just another bar story showcasing the antics of the alcoholic down-and-out population, don’t be fooled. Yet I’ll admit to having gone down that path, when I first heard about this book being set in a dive bar, thinking I might be getting into one of those novels where the prose virtually reeks of stale beer and rank drunks. You could say I was engaging in literary profiling, and would’ve made a big mistake, had I let the preconceived misjudgment influence me. Because what we’re given in Mohr’s third novel is not the problems and burdens of alcoholics crawling around in society’s margins, rather a brilliantly quirky and compassionately heartfelt story about diverse people wearing their own versions of a Santa suit while seeking a semblance of self-worth.

That’s especially true for the most memorable Damascus customers, Shambles and No Eyebrows. No Eyebrows is a gifted litigator, now suffering under the ravages of stage-four lung cancer. He skipped out on his family to spare them the hardship of his death. Shambles is the “patron saint of hand jobs,” claiming the Damascus bathroom as her office. She walked away from a stable marriage, unable to cope with that very stability. These two find themselves cruising the San Francisco streets in a cab that’s unable to make progress going forward due to street flooding, a metaphor for their own inability to go forward as a couple. 

I don’t want to tell you what happens to Shambles and No Eyebrows, let alone the consequences of Syl’s installation under the wrath of the Operation Iraqi Freedom vets. That’s meant to be discovered when reading this unique and exceptional story that reveals the inner being of a bar and its inhabitants. Instead, I’ll offer what comes to mind for me as I think about the conclusion of Damascus. It’s an image of No Eyebrows’ daughter tap dancing her heart out on a tiny plywood stage to cheer up her mother. It’s working because, “There’s something naked about it. Something simple.” The novel Damascus is working for the same reason, with kudos to a bizarre cast of characters you can’t help but love.

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