:: Article

Under the Microscope

By Jonathan Woods.

termiteparade

Termite Parade, Joshua Mohr, Two Dollar Radio 2010

San Francisco based writer Joshua Mohr’s second novel Termite Parade succeeds triumphantly because we instantly care about his characters. A story is the sum of its characters, sprawling, brawling and cavorting across the page. For all the clever writing in the world, if the characters that walk upon the stage of those previously blank pages are not real, do not come alive like close friends we didn’t know we had, then we’re wasting our time.

Termite Parade resonates from deep in the American psyche like some plaintive ballad in the tradition of ‘Frankie & Johnny.’ It is the story of Mired and Derek. From one perspective Mired and Derek are just ordinary folks trying to get by and not doing to well at it either. From another perspective Mired and Derek come to represent the plight of each reader’s life, struggling to make a connection with another person, to find some human shelter from the raging storm of chaos in which we live.

Mired is a waitress but with an intellectual bent. She’s been through a zillion failed relationships and wants the present one with Derek to work. Yet she has a self-destructive streak that works to undermine her connection with Derek. Derek is an auto mechanic and a coward, afraid to tell Mired that she didn’t drunkenly fall down the stairs and bust her face and teeth but that he let her fall.

This event, which occurs in the opening pages of Termite Parade, and Derek’s inability to face and admit to Mired the truth of what happened bursts like a tsunami over the lives of these characters. We read on voraciously, mesmerized, wondering whether Mired and Derek will be swept away or find some tree branch or rooftop that will save them from the swirling, uncaring currents of existence.

Lurking at the periphery is a third character, Derek’s twin brother and doppelganger, Frank the filmmaker, the seeker of truth. Frank’s ambition is to make the ultimate documentary film that gets at the ultimate truth of human existence, the cinema of The Unveiled Animal as Frank calls it.

These characters are difficult to say the least: angry, jealous, troubled, vain, dangerous, even a bit crazed. And yet not unlovable, especially as we get to know them. In truth they are not unlike ourselves, if we are really willing to look in the mirror.

The moment we meet Mired we are gripped, as though she is sitting across from us at the kitchen table, a glass of whiskey at hand, the night air thick with fog and car fumes. Tired, disheveled, vulnerable, she leans forward, looks in our eyes and speaks:

There were days I felt like the bastard daughter of a ménage a trios between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore. Days pungent with disappointment. Days soiled and hoarding blame.

She is an old friend confessing how fucked up her life is, but no more fucked up than our own. Telling tales to make our blood curdle. It’s an irresistible voice and we know immediately that we’re in for a wild night of confessions, tears, anger and strangeness.

Derek on the other hand is always looking for the easy way out, the compromise, the lie, the half-truth that will allow him to get by. When there’s no more ice to make a whiskey on the rocks, Derek settles for frozen peas.

Frank, the least realized character, is obsessed with making a breakthrough documentary reality film. He presses Derek to reveal the truth of Mired’s fall.

The tale unfolds in alternating first person narratives by each of the three main characters. In that respect I was reminded of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And like Faulkner’s story Termite Parade is rife with gallows humor that keeps the dark narrative of desperate lives from going completely over the edge. Here’s Mired cataloging her myriad of lovers and boyfriends past:

…the ones who told me what I wanted to hear, told me sadistic things no one should hear, pretended to be happy, pretended to be unhappy, pretended to be ambivalent, pretended to leave town, never called me after sex, never opened their eyes during sex, scowled at me during sex, never kissed me afterward, never collapsed into my arms afterwards but fled to the shower, fled to their clothes and then to obligations outside front doors, the ones who dribbled emotional propaganda to get me into bed faster, so they could cum faster, so they could go home faster or send me home faster, not even offering cab fare, the ones who never tried to make me orgasm, the ones who couldn’t make me orgasm, the few that could but lost interest…

Mohr’s writing teams with this kind of energy. There is also an oddness, a quirkiness to Mohr’s imagination reminiscent of another great San Fran writer, the late Richard Brautigan, though Mohr has none of Brautigan’s coyness. At one point Derek flees to Reno, Nevada where he picks a fight with a men’s softball team called the Wombats.The Wombats throw Derek in the tin urinal tough in the men’s room and piss on him. A bizarre scene of humiliation that awakens in Derek a realization of his own ill treatment of Mired.

Termite Parade moves with the pace and forward momentum of a thriller and leaves you marveling at Mohr’s ability to make ordinary lives extraordinary and universal.

jonathanwoods

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jonathan Woods is the author of Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem [New Pulp Press, 2010]. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 27th, 2010.