Some Things That Meant the World to Me
by Joshua Mohr
Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
Joshua Mohr's debut novel is that rare literary gem: the kind of story that envelops you so wholly, you forget that you're reading. The kind of book you want to lend to everyone you know -- except that you can't bear to part with it. I haven't felt this enamored of a book since I first encountered Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son more than a decade ago, and that is one of my "desert island" books.
Some Things That Meant the World to Me tells the story of Rhonda, a 30-year-old man whose delicate psyche is strained to the breaking after an instance of heroism gone awry. After saving a hooker's life, she offers him a "freebie" that ends with him drunkenly wetting her bed. She kicks him out of her apartment, berating him wildly, and as Rhonda, wet with "[c]lammy humiliation," waits at a bus stop, he's visited by a familiar-looking little boy wearing a miner's helmet. Turns out -- in what is the first of many surreal turns in this novel -- that the boy is Rhonda's inner-child. Little-Rhonda leads adult Rhonda to a dumpster behind a taqueria. Here, beneath the crusty remains of beans and guacamole, is a trapdoor to the past, where Rhonda confronts his traumatic childhood.
Rhonda's past is dark, and filled with damaged, unsavory characters that are deftly rendered in their specificity and complexity. Rhonda's mother, a former pianist, is now ruined by rheumatoid arthritis -- and her addiction to painkillers and alcohol. When she's around, she's perpetually drunk on boxed Chablis (which she pronounces "tcha-bliss"). Often, though, she is out on one of her "disappearing acts," leaving Rhonda in the care of her boyfriend, Letch, who abuses him physically and emotionally.
The full account of Rhonda's childhood is revealed in stages, unfolding in a narrative that switches between past and present. This measured drip of information is masterfully controlled on Mohr's part, and absolutely gripping from a reader's standpoint. It's not until the end that we're given the full story of the childhood trauma that resulted in the damaged adult Rhonda.
Despite this novel's bleak nature, it's redeemed by the few bright spots in Rhonda's life. Most especially poignant is Rhonda's friendship with Old Lady Rhonda (yes, another Rhonda), who is an ace at Wheel of Fortune and becomes more of a mother to him than he's ever known. And more importantly, there's Rhonda himself, who has a tenacious reserve of hope and self-preservation, even when he doesn't consciously realize it. For instance, when his love interest, Handa, laughs at one of his jokes, Rhonda says:
Hearing her laugh was like she'd taken everything awful and everything I'd squandered and turned it into an ant, one tiny ant that I could barely see, something so small that it couldn't hurt me anymore, and if I held the ant, if I placed it on my skin, I'd feel its tiny weak legs walking all over me and I'd know that everything was going to be all right.
This capacity for hope, to feel like maybe everything is indeed going to be all right, is what drives Rhonda's actions throughout the story, even when he needs Little-Rhonda and Old Lady Rhonda to help him see that. In the end, he comes to a place of peace -- not to mention a little good Fortune -- that is funny, strange, and immensely resonant.