Termite Parade

By Joshua Mohr

Two Dollar Radio
July 2010, Paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 978-0982015162

Termite Parade

Reviewed by Gabriel Blackwell

Just out of college and desperate for a job, I got suckered into selling door-to-door. It was advertised as an apprenticeship at an advertising agency, but really it was business-to-business sales, pounding the pavement with a clipboard and a product. The guy they paired me with for my “working interview”—let’s call him “Lenny”—a rumpled type in a button-down short-sleeve shirt, had lost his two front teeth the weekend before in a bar fight, but I didn’t discover this until we walked past a bar and Lenny explained why he was skipping it: “Not allowed in to any establishments that serve liquor,” he told me, then showed me the gap that explained his lisp, the ever-so-slight whistle always evident as he delivered his well-greased sales pitch. It didn’t help that the product that we were supposed to be hawking was “Stamps dot com,” two sibilant esses right off the bat. During the course of our long day together, Lenny told me  what he was going to do with all the money he was going to make; that morning, I had had three different managers direct my attention to the Ferrari parked outside—that’s what working there had done for them. Each time, of course, it had been the same Ferrari. When we stopped for a break, on a bus bench outside of the gas station where Lenny bought his lunch (chips and a huge Coke), I asked him what the pay rate was, and his answer made my heart sink—if he didn’t sell anything, he didn’t get paid. Somehow, though, he was oddly upbeat, optimistic that the mother lode of closes was just around the corner. I despaired of his sobriety. We did not make a single sale that day.

By the third page of Joshua Mohr’s Termite Parade, the narrator, a Filipina named Mired missing her three front teeth, is sitting in the dentist’s chair having her own scarlet-and-enamel letter replaced with a temporary bridge, forever after a reminder of “the missing…damage. Detritus. Crumbs” that she sees everywhere in her life. Like Rhonda, the protagonist of Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me (Two Dollar Radio, 2009), Mired is rarely sober and perpetually teetering on the precipice of absolute disaster; she describes herself as the “bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore.” Replace Dostoyevsky with Bukowski and Sylvia Plath with Calamity Jane from “Deadwood,” and you would have Lenny.

Mired’s boyfriend, Derek, dropped her down their apartment building’s stairs (not, he assures us, without cause, after she embarrassed him at a going-away party for his ex-girlfriend) but has subsequently convinced her that she tripped and fell. When Derek walks out on Mired while she is under the dentist’s drill, Derek’s twin brother, Frank, a filmmaker working on a new cinematic paradigm he calls “The Unveiled Animal,” comes to her rescue and attempts to tell her the truth about the “accident.” Mired, doomed by her dubiety, pushes him away for badmouthing Derek to her.

Mohr switches between his first-person narrators, moving from Frank to Derek to Mired, deftly managing the transitions between—and even within—sections, particularly in the superb penultimate chapter, the novel’s crescendo, told entirely in counterpoint. This penultimate chapter seems meant as an echo of, or convergence with, Frank’s film, “Infection Confession,” in which he captures, entirely by accident, live footage of a woman sitting on a bench in Golden Gate Park. She is rifling through a book, only pretending to read it, when a man pulls a gun on her, takes her wallet, and tells her, “A pretty girl shouldn’t sit in the park by herself. It isn’t safe.” Frank doesn’t make a move to stop the mugging because he is sure that he has just captured what he calls “the true topnotch,” not least when, a week later and in the same spot, he  sees the same woman and the same mugger, in entirely the same situation. Playing the sequence for his brother, Frank is convinced by Derek that this woman is being “mugged” by her own lover, and that the scenario has been concocted to excite the couple’s passion. Derek, naturally, has a plan to take that passion to even greater heights, by introducing an element of real danger into it: himself. And so, with Frank filming, Derek sneaks up on the couple and pulls his own gun on them.

At this point the reader will have become aware that, for all their contriteness and self-professed victimhood, none of these narrators are entirely blameless for the wrecks they have become. Frank sabotages himself at work and ends up fired. Derek gets himself pissed on by Wombats. And Mired introduces her “Museum of Emotional Failures,” a catalog of men she has made the mistake of dating, with a list of exhibits so long she needs a twinned, even tripled, alphabet (Exhibits A, B, C…Z, AA, BB, etc.).

If “Infection Confession” is in danger of telegraphing the novel’s denouement, of being perhaps too perfect a mise en abyme, Frank’s role in it is actually beautifully subtle. By making us understand that neither Derek nor Mired is giving us the whole truth, any more than the couple in the film, Mohr pushes Frank into the interpretive role of the traditional first-person narrator (reminiscent of Conrad or James, he tells us that his narration is a “deposition”). He is, after all, behind the camera. We presume that he is the lens, that, of the three, he is giving us “the true topnotch.” But Frank is not terribly good at deriving meaning from what he sees. He fails to understand that the mugging is not in fact a mugging, that Derek did not just accidentally drop Mired down the stairs. They are convenient, selfish distortions. Like Lenny tempted by the Ferrari, Frank is excellent at fooling himself, terrible at fooling anyone else.

We are constantly being reminded that things are not what they seem: Mired’s “temporary” and “fake” front teeth, Frank “a perfect impostor” of Derek, even the apartment building most of the novel takes place in has a “rank exterior” that belies its “adorable” interior. It is as if, with every face, we were asked, “Is this really someone you can trust to tell the truth?” Indeed, in the midst of Frank’s tepid indictment of Derek, Mired says, “I couldn’t be sure, but he had this awkward expression on his face, as if he were enjoying this… He loved disseminating his covert news, loved delivering the devastating facts.” Horrible things happen to them, but these characters seem to invite, perhaps even deserve, disaster. Such a delicate combination of vulnerability and sliminess, Mohr’s specialty, is fascinating; you never want to turn your back on these characters, in either sense. But are they the termites of the title? More and more, it seems that it is really doubt, not just theirs but ours as well, that is tunneling through this novel and undermining its characters’ characters. It seems perfectly possible that, like the couple in “Infection Confession,” they were all perfectly happy until we came along.