Paradoxically, nothing is more traditional or old-fashioned in the arts than the avant-garde.
If you’ve got a surface to deal with, for instance, paint it black. Thus, the inside of the San Francisco dive bar in Joshua Mohr’s third novel, “Damascus,” is painted black. And what alienated adolescent has not given in to the impulse to jigger around with his appearance, fiddling with piercings and tattoos and black turtleneck sweaters — all the while sending the signal that we are more than these paltry existences, that we cherish a great soul beneath our physical masks?
And thus Owen, the 60-year-old alcoholic who runs the Damascus Bar, has been tormented all his life by a birthmark just under his nose that makes him look like Adolf Hitler.
In the real world, Owen could look into some plastic surgery. In these pages, however, he happens upon a Santa Claus suit being sold by a sidewalk vendor and wears it for almost all the rest of the book. The beard covers his birthmark. Customers begin to depend on him, confide in him, disclose to him their most tender wishes.
Like any bar in an avant-garde play or movie or book, the Damascus serves as a sanctuary, a place of truth and compassion, a haven for lost souls who, by their very drunkenness, their surrender to their own failures, are more authentic than the average run of human beings who “march to their destiny by catch-words,” as E.M. Forster once wrote.
So we have the Damascus Bar, painted black, with dozens of broken-mirror stars glued to the ceiling and a wounded but kindhearted Santa Claus running things. And because even (or especially?) an avant-garde piece must have some romance waiting around to be tainted, we have a middle-aged man, No Eyebrows, who points to his face and asks, rhetorically, “Do you know who wants to touch this monster?” He’s dying, and to spare his wife and child the horrors of this process, he has left home to hang around the Damascus, where every night is “a pitiful costume party.”
Every hero needs a heroine, and the one drawn to No Eyebrows goes by the name of Shambles. Is she a great beauty? Not exactly: “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.” Shambles has also left her spouse because things were no longer new and thrilling. For some reason, she has chosen this bar life where she’s a freelance whore who offers alternative sex in the restroom.
A subplot is provided by Syl, an avant-garde artist who plans to protest the Iraq war by hanging a dozen portraits of dead soldiers in the bar, along with hammering in a corresponding number of live fish. She plans to let them rot over a period of a month, thus bringing home the smell of death. Why Owen, the bartender, would let her do this, considering that he’s running an actual business, is anybody’s guess.
The author wanted him to, I imagine.
In fact, the author bullies his characters pretty thoroughly here. They do what he wants them to do, including speaking in perfect, mellifluous phrases, even though they’ve been drinking day and night. (The avant-garde is rarely ruled by real life, which is convenient.) The author likes fancy writing, too, and doesn’t hold back. “Sometimes our rusted memories maintained their extraordinary architecture,” he observes, or he gives us a sentence fragment, such as “Transient, merciful surgeons knotting susceptible skin.”
I know who this book is for: the alienated adolescent who never comes out of his room and is generally driven mad by the ordinary world. The volume itself is startlingly handsome and, if you haven’t read this stuff before, appealing in its desperation.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
By Joshua Mohr
Two Dollar Radio. 224 pp. Paperback, $16