February 23, 2010

Book review: "Some Things That Meant the World to Me," by Joshua Mohr

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Some Things That Meant the World to Me, by Joshua Mohr

Some Things That Meant the World to Me
By Joshua Mohr
Two Dollar Radio

So let me confess that the first thing I did after receiving Joshua Mohr's debut novel Some Things That Meant the World to Me was have a pretty serious eyerolling session, after seeing the back-cover blurb call it not only "gritty" and "beautiful" but also "hypnotic" and "poetic;" these are all essentially empty buzzwords used by lazy copywriters when trying to describe character-heavy literary stories they don't understand, a bad enough situation when even one is used and nearly unforgivable when spying all four. But damn if it didn't turn out to be true, which serves as a good enough introduction to this title as any; that it's the type of book that inspires people to use words like "gritty," "beautiful," "hypnotic" and "poetic" all in a big one-paragraph rush, the kind of book that its fans don't just like but passionately love, precisely for the mastery over language and style displayed. And that makes it one of the hardest types of books for me as an analytical reviewer to cover, because a big part of why it's so great is simply impossible to describe in analytical terms; and this of course is the main reason we have the arts in the first place, the reason we sometimes read poetry instead of a steady diet of essays and journalism, but is also the reason my write-ups of such books always seem to be lacking by the end, which is why I humbly ask in advance for your forgiveness today.

At its heart, the book is essentially a dark morality tale, not surprising from a man whose day job is as a teacher at a halfway house in San Francisco; set in the Bay area as well, it tells the story of a man called Rhonda, a victim of multiple childhood traumas now barely eking out an existence as an adult, the kind of terminal barfly who will literally drown the pain of a broken arm with liquor in order to avoid a trip to the public clinic, letting it reset as a twisted, unusable deformity instead. The son of a fellow alcoholic, who dated a man throughout his childhood who inflicted all kinds of abuse on him, both sexual and psychological, Rhonda seems to have had the deck stacked against him nearly from birth; and that's really the main point of the simplistic storyline itself, to travel back and forth in time as a way to examine this childhood in depth, and the ways it's made Rhonda a barely functioning trainwreck as an adult, using the framing device of an ineffectual psychologist that he is forced to visit as a teen, after getting caught slipping antifreeze into one of his stepfather's drinks one day (or, it's not actually his stepfather, in that his mom never technically remarries, but you see my point).

But like I said, a look at this book's plot really only scratches the surface of this remarkable manuscript; because if you really want a good if not pithy description of what this novel is about, you can think of it as the love-child of Charles Bukowski and Haruki Murakami. And that's because, much like Murakami, Some Things relies heavily not just on magic realism but sometimes outright magic to make its point, an emotionally dense story that nonetheless has the textual lightness of a well-done haiku; but then like Bukowski, it also relies on deliberately outrageous anecdotes concerning the depths that our lowest level of society can sometimes sink to, events so ridiculously horrible that you can't help but to assume they're true, because who in their right mind could dream up such depravity out of thin air? For example, take the whole running subplot in this book regarding the concoction of a batch of "prison moonshine," otherwise known as "pruno," originally suggested by one of Rhonda's wino friends as a way for him to save money; and how as it ferments day after day in its overstuffed plastic bag, Rhonda ends up forming an emotional attachment to it, eventually sleeping with it at night and treating it as the girlfriend he's never had, just to suffer yet another trauma when it breaks one night from over-squeezing, splashing its foul combination of rotting oranges and ketchup packets all over Rhonda's crappy SRO apartment. And this is brilliant because A) it adds an utterly unique element to what's usually a pretty tired genre; B) it nicely illustrates the kind of dysfunctional loneliness that defines Rhonda as a character; C) it establishes the kind of pitch-black yet absurdist humor that marks this entire book; and D) it creates a violently visceral visual metaphor for Rhonda's relationship with other humans in general.

This book is full of such moments, the kind of multilayered scenes that mark a mature writer in the first place, and that allow such books to be enjoyed in both a surface-level way and in a much deeper one, depending on the desire of the reader in question. It is a world where trapdoors to the human psyche exist in the bottoms of Mexican restaurant dumpsters, where the ring of hairs circling the bellybutton of a teenage Arab girl is the sexiest thing in all of human existence, a world where language desperately matters and nothing can be accepted at face value; and in fact the only reason it's not getting a higher score today is simply because of the harshness of its subject matter, sure to be a turn-off for some audience members and traumatizingly unreadable for others. You'll need a strong stomach for sure to make it through Some Things That Meant the World to Me; but I for one found the effort well worth it, the kind of near-perfect literary construction that makes me fall in love with writing all over again, every time I come across yet another example. It's one of the few books I read each year to remain a true pleasure from start to finish, instead of at least partly a chore, and it comes highly recommended to those who are up for such a challenge.

Out of 10: 9.1, or 10 for fans of dark fiction

Read even more about Some Things That Meant the World to Me: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:49 PM, February 23, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |