by Josh Mohr
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$15.99 paperback ISBN 9781937512347
By Noah Sanders
Novelist, Josh Mohr’s Sirens, a scathing memoir of his battle with drug and alcohol addiction, begins with the author sober, in his late 30s, a successful writer and a seemingly happy, responsible adult able to take to care of his family. Lying in bed with his wife, Lelo, and his daughter, Ava, Mohr is afflicted with a stroke, a near-death experience which drags him down into the murky tunnels of his life. “I’m thirty-nine now,” Mohr writes, “wondering if a look backward can make sense of who I am, what I am.” In gritty, angular prose, Mohr digs deep into his days of bleeding out in hotel bathrooms, of rolling drunks for pocket change, of ketamine addiction and lost weekends, circling his past in hopes he’ll better understand who he is now, who he’ll be later. Sirens is a memoir stripped of any padding; it is an honest depiction, at times painfully so, of a man trying to assess if what he’s been can ever come to terms with what he struggles to be.
The book is about drug addiction because that’s the bloated river of memory and hurt Mohr has to wade through, but he’s too good of a writer to let it rest there. Mohr deals with his inability to equate his sober life with his history of addiction. To survive, to move forward even, Mohr has compartmentalized his life into a variety of identities – drunk, addict, father, husband—each separate from the next. He moves through life fractured, incomplete, the weight of his former mistakes always threatening to pull him back. For every moment of sobriety, of ‘normal’ adult life he’s fought to achieve—his novels, his family, his tenuous health—Mohr flays himself open, revealing how his worldview is still steeped in the context of addiction. A surgery to prevent future strokes becomes a potential for relapse; a book tour for his first novel becomes a road trip through a bourbon-scented minefield; the daily travails of adult life becomes reason enough to dip back into whatever drug he can get his hands on.
Sirens isn’t about marveling at how anyone could survive the abusive physical and mental paces Mohr has put himself through; it’s about Mohr’s accepting himself and of his myriad parts, good, bad or otherwise. Over the course of 208 pages, Mohr accepts the flaws and frailties of his humanity, recognizing the loose patchwork of influences and life experience that defines us as humans.
Mohr’s daughter Ava, his most adult responsibility, shakes him the hardest. He recounts a story of Ava, like kids do, slipping his grasp and pitching over the edge of a staircase. And even though she’s fine, and Mohr’s actions to protect her are heroic, it becomes an acknowledgement of his failure, of the inability of a man with his past to keep a living, breathing child unhurt. “It scares me so much,” Mohr writes, “that she relies on me to survive.” But, she does, and to be the father he wants to be, Mohr has to come to grips with all the disparate parts of who he is, —“dirty laundry leper,” “alcoholic car-jacker,” “the criminal” —to come to the realization that for his daughter to know him, she’ll have to know all of him. But Mohr will have to get there first.
The writer never closes the door on his daunting issues—addiction or otherwise—but instead lays them out on the page, plainly visible for all to see. The writing of his memoir becomes a part of his recovery, an acknowledgement, that these aren’t obstacles to surmount and forget, but active parts of who he is at all times, regardless of his station in life. Even if he wants to forget the person he was, Mohr knows, or ends knowing, that without his past, he’s a hollow shell, floating backwards towards his darkest impulses. Sirens is the written equivalent of Mohr roughly stitching together his past and present, in the hopes that the future, for himself and his family, will exist because of it. Or as Mohr writes, “We are never just one thing. I was never only the heart defect, only the author or the junkie, or husband or father or professor or drunk. I wear all of these like layers of skin.”