A Man and His Plock

With Fight Song, San Francisco's Joshua Mohr enters uncharted territory: the suburbs.

There’s something about the plock. This object — which, yes, is half plaque, half clock; or, more accurately, a piece of wood with a nonfunctional timepiece embedded in it — arrives all of two pages into Fight Song. It’s gifted to the book’s protagonist — Bob Coffen, a quietly desperate husband, father, and video game designer living uncomfortably comfortably somewhere in the California suburbs — by his boss on the occasion of his tenth work anniversary, and it’s all just so perfect. This is, of course exactly the kind of BS corporate artifact you could almost actually imagine some executive giving a valued employee, and it’s one of those imaginative little details that reveals itself like an Easter egg and sticks with you long after you finish the book.

It’s also the first hint that Fight Song is, much unlike Mohr’s two previous novels, a satire, or at least a dark comedy — not to mention one that traffics not in the distinctly urban dramas Mohr has staked his literary career on, but rather exists in entirely new territory, literally and figuratively. Mohr’s last novel, 2012’s acclaimed Damascus, was set in San Francisco’s Mission District and focused on the kinds of people Mohr tends to surround himself with in his personal life: artists, addicts, iconoclasts, odd ducks. But Fight Song concerns an entirely different set of characters and motivations. “I knew I wanted to write about a guy who wasn’t my typical character,” said Mohr, who will discuss the book along with Oakland author Samuel Sattin and yours truly on Monday, February 25, at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland). “And it was uncomfortable …. But this was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. And hopefully the reader can sense my whimsy and my joy in it.”

She can. The book’s unnamed suburban setting — which Mohr revealed was something of a “super-suburb” concocted via visits to East Bay suburbs like Pleasanton and Danville, as well as the South Bay cities and towns surrounding Stanford — is home to all kinds of slightly off-kilter characters, even if they’re strange in a different way than Damascus‘: a muscle-bound fast-food employee running a side business performing phone sex through the drive-through intercom; a magician-cum-marriage counselor named Bjorn the Bereft who performs his act to sold-out crowds and becomes a tragicomic character in the book’s third act; a rich-boy business executive who insists on referring to himself in the third person and gifts the aforementioned plock with zero irony or self-awareness.

“It seems like typically, in film and literature, [the suburbs] have always been characterized as being sort of beige and lifeless,” Mohr said. But injecting them with the same kind of strangeness one finds in the city doesn’t just make for a more interesting story, it makes for a more honest one. “My objective wasn’t to make fun of the Coffens,” Mohr continued. “And at the end of the day, whether it’s satire or stark realism, there still has to be a big beating heart on the page.” For all of the book’s razor-sharpness, that heart really does exist in Fight Song. It’d be easy for a tattooed, Mission-dwelling novelist to use this opportunity to relentlessly and mercilessly skewer the suburbs and all their inhabitants, but throughout the book, you get the sense that Mohr has real affection for his characters and his setting. In his hands, something as absurd as Coffen’s wife’s world-record attempt for treading water emerges as a believable central conflict; the aforementioned fast-food waitress becomes one of the book’s tragic heroes; Coffen himself — who could so easily have been drawn as a one-note archetype of suburban ennui — reveals himself as something much more complicated; and all these darkly comic symbols of suburban life take on true emotional meaning as talismans and totems and metaphors. Even the plock. 7 p.m., free. DieselBookstore.com


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