Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Mired (rhymes with tired) is a women with rather poor taste in men. One former boyfriend drunkenly urinated in her closet. Another, a dreadlocked white boy, drunkenly shaved her head. Anybody notice a trend here? When she finally met somebody who would tolerate her self-destructive behavior, she dumped him because she didn't want to attend his drum circle. She doesn't hold up much better with her current beau, Derek, who, after enduring an embarrassing drunken rant, drops Mired down a flight of stairs in a moment of blind fury.
While Mired is ostensibly the protagonist of Joshua Mohr's second novel, Termite Parade, she shares the narrative with both Derek and his twin brother, Frank, an aspiring filmmaker, as they each tell their side of the story. These testimonies are less the product of reflection as they are extracted, offered like depositions in a criminal case. At one point, Frank says, "the only reason people tell their stories is to clear their name." But these stories don't clear anybody's name as much as they attempt to describe their toxic behavior and illuminate a path to redemption.
Mohr's characters are undeniably cruel to each other. Mired, in a drunken fit, tells Derek that she deserves more than what he has to offer -- this after she publicly humiliates him in front of his friends. Derek, in turn, lies about his actions, while his brother hides in bushes, surreptitiously filming a young woman getting robbed at gunpoint, as part of his work-in-progress called "The Unveiled Animal." It's a despicable catalog of behavior that would eventually numb the reader's brain were it not for the deftness with which Mohr's astringent prose is able to extract equal amounts of shock, pity, and, eventually, optimism on his characters' behalf.
The writing here hits hard and fast, yet it achieves a comfortable rhythm -- not unlike a Ramones song. If indeed Termite Parade feels like punk rock disguised as literature, it succeeds because it maintains a relentless pace and chronicles situations easily identified by the economically or emotionally dispossessed. Instead of (yet another) dreary exercise in existential malaise penned by some Park Slope refugee, Termite Parade offers an unvarnished look at people who, if maybe we can't readily identify with, we probably know someone who would.
What comes across most clearly in Termite Parade is the authenticity of the characters' struggles: a desire to be good that conflicts with an impulse to be cruel; wanting to be loved, but not at the expense of being taken for granted. Yes, the characters are all ridiculously self-centered, but they are also self-aware. They are conscious of the fallout their behavior creates and of how frequently they cave when confronted with the work required by healthy relationships. However, in the novel's denouement, Mired reflects on what has happened between her, Derek, and his brother, and concludes, "[W]e were humans and could learn. We could figure things through if you gave us enough time."
Written with as much heart as brawn, Termite Parade is a sucker punch to literary complacency, without a hint of authorial self-absorption. Mohr is a post-millennial Bukowski with a dash of Hubert Selby, Jr. thrown in for good measure, and with only two published novels under his belt (the first being Some Things That Meant the World to Me), he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite American novelists.
Books mentioned in this post