Joshua Mohr’s fiction — he’s the author of five novels to date — roars with a hard-fought humanism, a potent sense of place and a host of memorably flawed characters. With his new book, “Sirens,” he turns that same storytelling approach on his own life. The story he tells is a harrowing and intense one, chronicling his experiences with addiction; his path to sobriety, marriage and fatherhood; and his subsequent discovery of a medical condition that put his life in peril.
Finding the right balance between the author’s unquiet past and their more restrained condition nowadays can be difficult, but Mohr deftly juxtaposes multiple timelines while keeping things moving forward. And while Mohr’s experience with addiction informs the novel, there’s a lot more going on, from his complex family history to his formative experiences as a writer. And he’s well aware of the paradoxical nature of some of these events: When undergoing major surgery, he notes that “today, I have to do drugs to save my life.”
One of the standout aspects of “Sirens” is the way in which Mohr writes about physical damage, charting out the effects of various narcotics and blackouts on his system with the same haunting rigor that he does when discussing his health problems after becoming sober. It’s visceral in the most literal way, and it serves as a reminder for how effective this style can be when done well. Though he also doesn’t stint on the strange — there’s a reason why the second part of this memoir has a title paying homage to Philip K. Dick. And one scene, about a night of shared cocaine that goes horribly wrong, serves as a microcosm of Mohr’s questions of safety, violence and the fragility of life.
Mohr has a knack for a memorable turn of phrase. When meditating on the nature of audio recordings, he applies some of that same imagery to the book the reader holds in their hands. “What happens when you hold it to your ear? Can you make out my scorched music?” There are occasional scenes that feel like glimpses of an even wider world, from Mohr’s early experiences in the literary world to his time volunteering at a halfway house; this is a taut and propulsive read, but there were moments when additional details might have been more illuminating. But as it stands, “Sirens” is a searing read, an illuminating trip (both metaphorical and literal) into its author’s mind and heart.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1, Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
By: Joshua Mohr.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio, 181 pages, $15.99.