Fight Song by Joshua Mohr
by Joshua Mohr
Soft Skull Press
The suburbs can be an easy target. For every Revolutionary Road or Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to complicate and humanize them, there’s a Suburgatory to capitalize on the most exaggerated elements for a comedy that laughs at the expense of the lives of suburbanites, rather than with them. Taking both approaches, Joshua Mohr’s fourth novel Fight Song joins the canon of fiction about middle-aged, middle-class white men bottoming out and looking for a way up—a genre novelist John Warner dubs the “white male fuck up novel.” While from its opening chapters a reader might think, as I did, that Fight Song will favor the comedy of exaggeration over the comedy of recognition and revelation, the novel develops into a smart interrogation of the stories we tell about ourselves to embolden and justify our own small lives in the larger-than-life digital age.
Fight Song follows Bob Coffen, a husband, father, and video game developer who has been unraveling for years—or, more accurately, hasn’t bothered to put in the effort to keep it together. Over the compressed timespan of one weekend, a narrative choice that gives the novel compelling momentum and tension, Bob tries to quit his job—or get himself fired—but is lauded by his employer instead. He makes an attempt to rescue his marriage but is tossed out by his wife, and tries to get through to his kids but is rebuffed by their devotion to the screens of tablets and phones and the video games Bob himself helped create. He is both hindered and helped in his quest toward redemption by a cast of oddball characters. Some of those lean on clichéd tropes of suburbia—such as Bob’s neighborhood rival Schumann, a man unable to talk about anything but his long-gone gridiron glories—and others appear at first to offer mere comic relief or absurdity for its own sake, only to be realized in powerful ways. There’s Ace, for instance, a janitor who plays in a KISS cover band and tries to be the best man he can for his girlfriend and her teenage son, and Björn the Bereft, a magician/marriage counselor who offers Bob hard-earned wisdom. Both characters arrive seeming too ridiculous to take seriously, yet Mohr complicates them in ways that make Bob, and this reader, think twice.
The novel as a whole embodies a similar shift, as Mohr simultaneously sends up and reimagines the notion of the “quest,” a conceit at the heart of literary and video game expectations alike (such as the ultraviolent, ultracynical games from which Bob makes his living). Bob’s macho desires to make his life grander than it is are skewered over and over. In the opening scenes, he is goaded into racing Schumann’s SUV on his bicycle, with predictably painful, humiliating results. After another neighbor, Westbrook, stops to ask if he is okay, Bob swears revenge on Schumann, leading to this exchange:
“At least let me drive you to his house. You look like a hammered turd.”
The two men stood near the Y’s fork. “I have to do this on my own, Westbrook. If our paths should cross again, we’ll toast to my victory.”
“Our paths have to cross again. You still have my tent poles, remember?”
That drive toward revenge, and toward a grand gesture to fix years of frustration and apathy in his masculinity, marriage, fatherhood, and life overall, can be indulged for a moment, but Bob—and men like him—is always called back to earth by mundane details and responsibilities like whose borrowed tent poles are where. The prose, too, is grounded in details, more focused on the material objects and actions of ordinary life than on lyrical speculation. Mohr propels the story with short fragments rather than long-winded description. Fight Song’s narrative voice is at a distance from its characters, opening the novel with “Way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs,” and showing us that puzzling universe in winking sympathy as we watch Bob’s awkward travails.
In several ways, this is a story of Bob becoming embodied, of “reprogramming his world” after living his life “like a character in the worst video game of all-time.” As the weekend proceeds, Bob becomes more and more a man of action, or at least a man who is physically present to a degree he hasn’t been for a long time. Ultimately, through a chain of events too unlikely to list here without spoiling the fun of the novel, he finds himself onstage with a band:
He’s getting even sweatier than he had riding the bike and he’s having the time of his life. Feels wonderfully winded. Feels lightheaded and loves every second of being live entertainment. Live! There’s no computer screen. There’s no streaming. No tape delay. No buffering. Bob Coffen is a human standing and sweating onstage in front of a roomful of other humans.
He has, through sweat and exhaustion, become tangibly human; he has become more than a mere avatar—an endemic risk of modern life as lived by Bob and men like Schumann and his familiar one-dimensional macho nostalgia. As Bob’s wife says in response to his drive to make himself mythic—as when he raced Schumann’s SUV on his bike—“Your gender is ridiculous.”
What Fight Song does so well is send Bob on a mission, a narrative quest to reboot his life as husband and father and worker, while poking a reader’s own desire for such a quest in the proverbial eye. The trappings of life, from technology to marriage to an aging body, the novel suggests, aren’t good or bad in themselves. What matters is the roles we let them play in the course of our own mundane quotidian quests, and whether we wait for mythical, magical moments to solve all our problems or act on our own behalf with small but meaningful gestures. This realization of Bob’s is exquisitely, beautifully demonstrated by the end of the novel—one of the finest endings I’ve read in a long time.
This is a novel that makes more of ideas and devices than might seem possible of them, perhaps best shown by Bob’s wife, Jane, who is on a quest of her own to break the world record for treading water the longest. “Treading water” seems an obvious metaphor, almost a cliché, and we think we know what Mohr’s getting at when we read, “But it’s hard for children to understand the immense achievement of treading water for so long. To them, it’s boring. It’s hard to watch. But Coffen understood Jane’s dedication.”
Yet like so much of Fight Song, that image of passing time, of making a change from the drudgery of everyday life, becomes richer and more surprising than expectations allow. It’s almost sleight of hand: we think we know what something means so we put it out of our minds, only to have it sneak up and reappear as an object of wonder (and it’s no coincidence that magic plays a role in Bob’s story). If some of the more thinly satirical elements of the novel are ultimately outclassed by more fully developed aspects around them, perhaps that’s a useful reminder that not everything in our lives can become magical. Sometimes we’re just grinding from level to level with no endgame in sight. But that doesn’t make our own quiet quests—or Bob Coffen’s—any less worth undertaking.