By December 25, 2011 0 Comments Read More →


I read for theme.  Every once in awhile, I stumble upon a book that sings for me and I loose myself in the text.  For me, Damascus by Joshua Mohr was such a book.

Ironically, it has a Christmas theme.  One of the main characters in this novel is Owen, the owner of a bar in the Mission District area of San Francisco called Damascus.  He suffers from a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like Adolf Hitler.  This leads to endless Hitler jokes.  One day, in a fit of depression, Owen purchases a Santa suit from a homeless man which also comes with a beard.

Suddenly, all the Hitler jokes are now Santa jokes.

While this might be enough to stimulate an author to write an entire book about how this transforms Owen, it is only one of many thematic image issues in the novel.  Other significant characters struggle with image issues including No Eyebrows (the cancer patient), Shambles (who survives giving hand jobs for drink money), Daphne (The Truth), and Revv (the tattooed bartender at Damascus). 

The bar Damacus is as much a character as the characters.  Here is how Shambles summarizes another bar in the book (but if fits Damascus as well):  “Shambles never trusted this place, Drunk Again, with all its manic outcasts:  addicts recently escaped from their last attempts at sobriety (the bathroom always had the burned tinfoil reek from tar heroin); people drinking with hospital bracelets on, sometimes wearing the garb issued to them from SF General, bandages covering their wounds from fights, falling, self-mutilation, gangrenous tears from needles, those in the midst of benders, liquor muting the volume of stale woes, a reality void of afflictions:  what you can’t remember, can’t hurt you.”

Human connection is a big issue in this book.  “Friendship didn’t have to last long, if it sutured some gash of loneliness you might otherwise bleed out from.” 

The major plot in the book comes when Daphne talks Owen into having an art exhibit at Damascus.  The artist is Syl, who intends to hang portraits of soldiers killed in Iraq along with dead fish that will rot to the point of smelling like death.

For some, the powerful statement of the artist is seen as a benefit.  “Revv said something that Syl agreed with so thoroughly she wanted to lean over and kiss him. ‘Art should stir shit,’ he said.”

While some may question how rotting dead fish will affect the daily visitors to the bar, no one begins to suspect how it will affect two soldiers who have combat ties.  This leads to the final conflict that resolves the story.  Characters struggle with making decisions and it at some point it is summarzied by this quote about the bar owner:  “How was Owen supposed to find out, figure out, who was right?” 

Forgiveness, making an impact, lending aid and comfort, deciding to leave or stay, and figuring out what is next are all powerful themes in the book.  Book discussion groups will be entranced by the characters, moved by the story, and thrilled by the skill of the author.  They can decide if it is true that “words were only weapons when real weapons weren’t around.”



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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